PLEASE NOTE: Since writing this post, Franco Sotgiu has severed ties with the restaurant and the chef that cooked this food has 'moved on' - the same experience can no longer be 'guaranteed'.
1977 - The Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks; The Bee Gees topped the charts with Saturday Night Fever; Red Rum won his third Grand National and in a galaxy far, far away… there was Star Wars!
Closer to home, a restaurant called ‘Pizzeria Italia’ opened its doors and quickly became one of the best and most respected restaurants in the North West.
In that same year, the Italian National Football team boasted greats such as Zoff, Gentile, Scirea, Tardelli, Paolo Rossi, Facchetti and Capello – just as these names have gone down in the annals as some of the Azzurri’s greatest ever players, Pizzeria Italia also began to carve out a little history of it’s own.
The name may have changed but for 35 years now, plate after plate of pizza and pasta has been served to its happy punters – for the past four years, the restaurant has been called Rustica.
|Some 'before' pictures|
Sadly, of late, the dated menu and décor has meant that many Mancunians fell out of love with Rustica in favour of Rio Ferndinad’s Rosso, San Carlo (see here) and, more recently, Jamie Oliver’s… but that is all set to change!
The Cabrelli family have gone into partnership with local businessman Franco Sotgiu, who, with his proven ability to give the people of Manchester what they want and need, plans to restore the restaurant to its former glory – this time, as Italia.
Italia is in a tricky position - it’s housed in a 1970s concrete monstrosity of a building that is due for redevelopment and therefore major investment in the premises in just not viable. Instead they have decided to work with what they’ve got… layers of ‘tat’ that have built up over the years have been stripped back the to reveal a delightfully kitsch 1970’s gem.
The original Italian marble now gleams and the whole place has been freshened and brightened up – its ‘glam’ is most definitely starting to rock again! But as you and I both know, it takes more than a lick of paint to reinvigorate a restaurant.
Franco knows he can’t compete with Jamie Oliver’s profile, Rosso’s loyal Ferdinand following or San Carlo’s £700k revamp but he can deliver on his commitment to use the finest ingredients, to produce a menu of well sourced, well cooked regional favourites, topped with a desire to get service back to the days of old.
Italia are seeking to employ a dedicated front of house staff that will make everyone feel welcome… Italian speakers and the kind that hand the kids lollipops at the end of the meal - a once standard practice that seems to have been forgotten by the large chain Italian restaurants.
Fresh from having recently set up SoLita in the Nothern Quarter (which has been much championed by me and is managed by his brother Dom), Franco asked me to head to ‘Italia’ (still officially Rustica) during its current soft opening period to “taste some dishes and offer my opinions on the latest menu developments” – as you can imagine, I didn’t need to be asked twice!
Head Chef, Timmy Shirley (ex Piccolinos and Jamie’s Italian) cooked up a couple of starters, several pasta dishes and a couple of mains for my wife, stepdaughter and me to share. Sadly, although the Inka Grill had been delivered, it was not fired up as yet so we didn't get to try anything off of the 'grill menu'; nor did we try any of the pizzas… the good thing being, I still have these to look forward to when they officially open later in the month.
Finest Sicilian Nocellara Olives – I always judge an Italian restaurant by the quality of its olives. Nocellara del Belice olives (or Castelvetrano Olives) are widely regarded as some of the best in the world… their inclusion on the menu tells me straight away that Italia are serious their commitment to provide top notch produce for their customers.
Fresh home baked Bruschetta with Gorgonzola, grilled pears & chestnut honey – this home made Bruschetta can come with several topping options including Lardo di Colonnata and the wonderful grilled Nduja sausage; I selected the Gorgonzola as my interest was piqued by the ‘chestnut honey’ which the waitress informed me was especially sourced from Carbrelli’s village… I found it delightfully aromatic with a slight bitterness that complemented the sweet pear and the rich, spicy cheese.
Suppli al Telefono – rice balls with stringy smoked mozzarella centres. These were excellent; I’m sure they will become one of Italia’s most popular starters. Wonderfully crisp on the outside with a Vesuvius of hot, gooey mozzarella in the centre – delicious! (My wife and step-daughter insist that I mention that the portion was too large… but I loved the generous serving!)
Parparadelle ragu di cinghiale – 12 hour braised, wild boar ragu, topped with pecorino. This was my favourite of the pasta dishes – rich and hearty and packed full of flavour, intensified from those twelve hours of slow cooking. I found the pasta in this and indeed all the dishes to be cooked perfectly 'al dente'.
Linguine vongole – with clams in a prosecco and saffron sauce. A good clean tasting dish – the saffron had been used well and did not come across too strongly as can sometimes happen. Good plump clams too... this was my stepdaughter’s favourite.
|'Guanciale' from WH Frost Butchers|
Bucatini all’amatriciana – classic Roman pasta with tomato, mild chillies and home cured guanciale. This was another contender for my ‘best dish’. Another rich, flavoursome offering – I tasted some before and after the fresh Parmigiano Reggiano was grated on top and it was definitely all the better for the extra cheese. (Although, I think it would be good to offer a choice between Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano at the table, as a dish like this could certainly 'take' the stronger cheese).
Parparadelle with capesante, timo & limone – broad ribbon pasta with scallops, thyme and lemon. This dish was one of the chalkboard ‘specials’ – it was light, fresh and zingy… my wife’s favourite. When fully operational as Italia, they are set to introduce a 'daily special made with fresh pasta' - so keep your eyes peeled on those boards!
Malloreddus Sardo - traditional Sardinian pasta with a light San Marzano tomato sauce, homemade Italian sausage and pecorino. This was the first time I have had this Semolina based pasta / dumpling (sometimes called ‘gnocchetti sardi’) from Sardinia… the shape helped to pick up the rich tomato and sausage sauce - another really strong dish.
Spaghetti Carbonara – Italia’s lighter version of the classic Italian dish. The absence of cream in the recipe not only makes it lighter but it enables the richness and flavour of the eggs, cheese and bacon fat to come through. (Personally, my least favourite of the dishes we sampled but my wife and step-daughter loved it.)
Pollo alla Prosecco – chicken fillet cooked in a cream and Prosecco sauce. This is not a dish I’d usually order but by cooking the meat in the sauce helped it to stay really moist – a good alternative for diners not wanting a pasta dish.
Salsiccia e lenticchie – spicy braised Italian sausage with lentils. Typically a meal that is served in Italian homes on New Year’s Eve. As such, it is the perfect dish to say farewell to Rustica and welcome in the future as Italia – the sausages, specially made by WH Frost to Franco’s recipe are excellent and the depth of flavour in the lentils was heavenly (partly due to the 'Lardo' it contains that gets cooked right down.)
For dessert, we shared Lemon Meringue Pie, Chocolate Cheesecake (made by assistant manager, Roberta) Cannoli and a selection of Cabrelli’s Ice Creams (Yoghurt with Tutti Frutti, Mango, Belgian Chololate, Raspberry and Frutti di Bosco)… all good but the real wow factor comes from the retro space-age dessert gizmo!
Disclaimer: Please be aware that we were invited as guests of the restaurant and the dishes that we ate were all in the ‘development stage’ - they may not all make the menu and those that do may well be tweaked… all I can say is, 'They have the Hungry Hoss seal of approval.'
I’ll leave you with a Godfather quote, as Clemenza says to Rocca who had just killed Paulie, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”Tweet