In my opinion – and probably the opinion of many – a visit to Manchester is never complete without a visit to San Carlo. The Italian restaurant is a popular favourite in the city for reasons which are totally apparent the moment you walk in. The place oozes atmosphere, charm and (I don’t really ever use this word, but it seems applicable here) – bonhomie.
We went there over the Easter weekend for a shopping trip and decided to push the boat out and give the day the full works with a lovely lunch.
This place has been a firm favourite for celebrations in my family for years. Largely because it has all of the ingredients for a fantastic meal out: great food, great feeling and crucially, great gossip.
Obviously central to this is the food – which is truly fabulous Italian fare – (but with a kind of Berlusconi ‘devil may care’ attitude towards cheese, cream and butter, which couldn’t be justified in most people’s day-to-day life).
My favourites are the starters. I don’t think the pizza bread can be beaten and I’m always incredulous that something as simple as cantaloupe and parma ham can taste so much better here than anywhere else. (I think the wow factor comes from the quality and freshness of the ingredients).
I always tend to over-order starters and then be too full for the main event. But then it is perhaps my nature (I’d always choose Advent canapes over Christmas dinner). For those more interested in the pasta and pizza side of things – the salmon ravioli in vodka sauce comes highly recommended. I always order something classic and nostalgic like carbonara or lasagna – as I find they both come with a side of magic. Oh and you must get sides – the peas with pancetta and also the spinach are particularly good. (Do you see now how things can end up spiraling out of control with the ordering here?)
But the San Carlo experience does not end with the food – it starts from the moment you walk in to the hustle and bustle of a restaurant that is always packed full of fun- reminding you just how bloody lucky you were to get a reservation. And then there are the flock of waiters that rush to welcome you – they are all for some reason male – and Italian, suited and booted and full of ‘character’.
But, perhaps the best bit is the razzle-dazzle. The walls are adorned with pictures of celebrities who have visited over the years. Which means you do spend a lot of your time with half an eye on the door, whispering ‘who is that over there?’
I am completely clueless when it comes to star spotting and rely totally on the people around me. But in the North West you can usually start with the common denominator of football or ITV. We did (apparently) see Martinez at Christmas at the Liverpool San Carlo (wearing a very dapper velvet jacket). This time round there was someone causing a stir in a pair of very conspicuous sunglasses, who we were convinced was the wife of a footballer (I know right – in Manchester – er…hold the front page). My claim to fame is I once saw Liz McDonald from Coronation Street (played by Beverly Callard) in the toilets. I was THRILLED. That is my kind of celebrity sighting (for real).
But the great thing about San Carlo – which I appreciate not everyone will necessarily agree with- is that all of life is here. While San Carlo might be seen as a celebrity hang-out it is not at all stuffy and pretentious, you get real life and real people. We witnessed a rather breathtaking drunken table fight kicking off, which did provide much excitement when five or so of San Carlo’s best were forced to step in and flank the table. Something told me the waiters had done this before. And as they frogmarched a man off one waiter turned to me with a wink – and rather impressive dramatic timing – and said ‘I love my job. We always bring a free show at San Carlo’. I absolutely couldn’t agree more.
For me San Carlo is best in the North West – perhaps because I associate it so much as a staple of ‘going home’ – but there are various versions of this restaurant across the country (all slightly nuanced) including Signor Sassi in London’s Knightsbridge, which is also great fun.