Every so often, an event comes along that allows you to combine several interests in an exciting and previously undreamed of way. To wit: this week's event celebrating Bella Italia's 15 years of Manchester residence, which exuberantly threw in any number of things to which I am partial. First, of course, food - and in particular Italian food. I am obsessed with all things Italy and am always happy to pop a few olives or a morsel of bruschetta in my mouth at a moment's notice - I must admit, however, that Bella Italia would not necessarily be my first choice (well, it might be now, but more of that later). Add in the prospect of three different courses at the three Manchester Bellas with a walking tour of Manchester with a focus on Italian history in between and you're on to a winner - I like history, and I love Manchester, and most of all, I have the greedy girl's fondness of a bit of a walk when I've eaten too much.
We begin at Bella Italia in the Arndale, where we are met by area manager Stuart, lovely PR Charli, our Green Badge Tour Guide Sue McCarthy, and a very welcome bottle of Prosecco. This is the venue for our starter course which, fittingly, is a selection of antipasti to share. Bella have been focusing on authenticity on their new menu and sourcing many of their key products (such as pasta, olives and olive oil) direct from Italy; easy to argue, perhaps, that this should have been done earlier, but the new approach is certainly visible in much of the attractive-looking selection laid out before us. We have one of each of the new antipasti boards: the Southern Italian Calabrese board (Calabria Pressed Spianata salami and soppressata salami, dry cured cappocollo ham, Buffalo bocconcini mozzarella balls, Pachino tomatoes, roasted peppers, ciabatta, grissini, rocket leaves and olives), the Northern Italian Alpino board (cured Speck ham, roasted herby Porchetta and classic mortadella alongside the same accompaniments as the previous board), and the vegetarian Legume board (as before, but the meat replaced with peperonata and tomato bruschettas, artichokes and roasted vegetables). Each of these would be between £11.45 and £11.95, and as each is easily big enough for two to share this seems good value, particularly as bottles of good quality olive oil, chilli oil and balsamic vinegar line the tables for extra glugging. My favourite of all the boards is the Legume selection, although I would like a little more salt on my bruschetta. We also agree that the Tempura prawns - wild king prawns in a light, crispy tempura batter and served with a garlic and lemon mayonnaise - are excellent; the calamari is unremarkable but perfectly acceptable (although perhaps a shade on the pricey side at £6.25).
So far, so good - although to be fair, any Italian should be able to get this kind of thing spot on and the mains were always going to be the real test. These are served at the Deansgate branch, so we gamely don our hats and coats and follow Sue out into the Manchester drizzle for the first leg of our tour. Sue is one of the guides at Tour Manchester, and she expertly regales us with interesting stories as she leads us round some of Manchester's most and least salubrious spots - the Town Hall looks stunning all lit up for Chinese New Year, but my favourite place is St Mary's Church, the "Hidden Gem" of Mulberry Street, founded in 1794 and thought to be the oldest post-Reformation Catholic church founded as a church in any large English city centre. Sue tells us a great story here about a Victorian police officer called Jerome Caminada who once solved a crime by sitting inside a grand piano in which he had bored peep holes, a perfectly acceptable modus operandi that should be brought back to modern policing in my opinion.
The walk goes all too quickly and the welcome at Deansgate is a warm one - this is a more traditional, Trattoria-style branch and I prefer it to the Arndale outpost. The food is quick to arrive and - frankly - surpasses my expectations by some considerable distance; so much so that I would actually find it hard to pick a favourite. We have, in order of appearance: Gamberoni (spiralized ‘Spaghetti' made from carrot, golden beetroot and courgette spirals with king prawns, garlic & chilli in a spicy pomodoro sauce), Amore Formaggi (super cute heart-shaped pasta parcels filled with four cheeses, in a basil pesto sauce topped with semi-dried Pachino tomatoes), Beef and Red Wine Ravioli (shredded beef and red wine filled pasta parcels in beef ragú sauce topped with rocket leaves), a mighty Lamb Shank slow-cooked in a garlic, red wine & rosemary sauce and served with mashed potatoes and green beans, and finally a Carne Mista pizza topped with spicy pepperoni, smoked ham, pancetta and Calabrese salami. It's hard to find much fault with any of this - some find the Amore Formaggi a "bit too cheesy" (although I love the contrast between the rich cheese and the fresh basil) and the lamb shank has quite a lot of skin on it, but everything is beautifully cooked (the ragu has clearly been simmering for many hours), the pizza is lovely and crisp and very generously topped, the prawn dish is real winner and has finally encouraged me to get my own spiralizer out its box, and the pasta (all bought from the Agnesi family, Italy's oldest pasta makers) is excellent. The staff know we are coming and we do have the area manager sitting at our table; still, whilst I would be interested to come back in less exulted company and see if the food is as good, I can only judge on what we have on the night and it's fairly flawless and very strong on flavour.
A shorter walk this time, up to the Piccadilly branch for desserts. We are met with an array of riches that includes samples of all the flavours of gelato (chocolate, honeycomb, vanilla, strawberry, tiramisu, bubble gum), the Limoncello Meringue Pie and a board of Shot Desserts (Tiramisu Mousse, Strawberry Cheesecake, Mini Pannacotta, Amaretto Chocolate Pot and Banoffee Pie). I'm not much of a pudding person but I enjoy all of this - the gelato (bought from the Callipo family Gelateria in Calabria) is properly rich and creamy, the lemon meringue pie is well baked with a nice contrast between the rich curd and the light meringue, and the little dessert pots (of which I snaffle the Banoffee Pie) are a great idea for people who only want a mini pudding due to excess greed elsewhere in the meal. We wash all this down with a shot of Limoncello because we are, of course, sunning ourselves on the Amalfi coast rather than sheltering from the rain in a dark corner of Picadilly Gardens.
Was it really quite like being in Italy? Well, the Manchester climate did its best to remind us where we were at all times, but clutching a bottle of Prosecco as a going-home present and with a tummy full of pasta and gelato and a head full of Italian legends, it was almost possible to forget I was on a tram and imagine myself in sunnier climes. Almost.
- Find Bella Italia at 92-96 Deansgate, 11-13 Piccadilly and Unit R8, Arndale Shopping Centre. Contact Sue and the other splendid guides via the Tour Manchester website.