Piccolino: 8 Clarence Street, Manchester, M2 4DW
When the staff speak Italian at an Italian restaurant in Manchester, you can reasonably begin to hope for good things. At Piccolino your wishes will come true.
We were whisked through the lively upper floor of the restaurant down to the mezzanine-style half away from the bar. Fear not, the atmosphere is no less, simply quieter. Our waiter, Macheal, was immediately likeable and certainly fulfilled his promise of being able to define anything on the menu as well as being able to give accurate recommendations for choices.
Speaking of choice you will be spoilt for it. The menu is vast but without seeming too much for the kitchen to handle. There are some typical Italian starters you might find at any restaurant including bruschetta and king prawns, but also ravioli, chicken liver and mussels. Mains come in the form of pastas, pizzas and a delectable selection of meat and fish and some rather special sides too. While you peruse at your leisure, (and argue over who will be having what so as to try the greatest number of dishes possible!) bread is served: two types, a sweet brioche and a crusty white, with a dipping well of garlic oil. It was complimentary, charming and very tasty. Bread boards can also be purchased as nibbles.
For starters, we opted for calamari fritti and roast butternut squash ravioli. The calamari was, in fried batter terms, divine. Thick (yes thick! no corner cutting here on produce!) rings of squid were encrusted with a light, non-greasy batter. The slow roast garlic mayonnaise had a pungent aftertaste and was a wonderful thick dip. Meanwhile, the ravioli did not disappoint. Four fat squares stuffed with a velvety butternut squash puree, seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. The plate was scattered with hazelnuts and amaretti biscuits, all finished in a smooth sage and jersey butter. It delivered on texture and flavour, mixing smooth and crunchy and combining sweetness and nuttiness.
Mains came soon after. The special of lemon sole actually hadn’t been de-boned as promised. However, Machael noticed before even we did, and scooped away our other main and side dishes to keep them warm while our fish was de-boned beside our table in, I must say, a very professional manner. When all our food had been re-delivered, we got stuck in. The lemon sole was fine and tender, the accompanying lemon oil beautifully light. Hand-cut chips were fat and fluffy while the insalata della casa was a generous serving of house salad with a light and fragrant dressing. From the meat menu, pollo ai funghi was a perfectly cooked chicken breast, halved across a bed of rich garlic cream. Three types of mushrooms, oyster, chestnut and portobello, brought a sweet, chewy nuttiness and earthiness to counter the cream while the gnocchi was thick but soft, both hearty yet airy at the same time. Pattatine fritte were as fries should be! Slender and irregular, tossed with a good pinch of sea salt, a bowlful was just not enough! Verdure arrosto consisted of roast pepper, aubergine, courgette and red onion. All recognisable without having been drowned in oil and the flavours were strong and woody.
No dessert was not an option. Tortina al ciccolato was a sizeable chocolate fondant, smothered in chocolate sauce and oozing a rich, bitter chocolate blood from its heart. It could have been slightly hotter but the sponge was melt-in-the-mouth, the chocolate dark as it should be. It doesn’t stop there, not with Piccolino! A scoop of salted caramel ice-cream certainly lived up to its name more than any of the same kind that I have ever tasted. Sweet caramel, undercurrents of sea-salt and the binding embrace of thick cream: it was all there. It was a little too melted when it arrived but still forming a scoop so I think, thanks to the heat of the fondant, it can be forgiven. Not such a sweet-tooth? Try the torta limone: a generous wedge of lemon polenta cake with a moreish grainy texture and a sting of lemon. Real marscapone cream (no thank-you Mr Whippy) and a blob of blueberry compote. Dessert, only lighter!
We felt at one point that a rather rowdy table of 10 could have been asked by management to tone it down a little; our end of the restaurant was having a hard time talking and listening thanks to the cackles of laughter resonating around the room, but we understand that staff are often at pains to do this to any party and I would not put it down to Piccolino fault at all. The atmosphere is fresh, vibrant and, well, whatever you want it to be, the staff endeavour to do it.
We weren’t rushed out, despite the growing business of the restaurant and neither did we feel imposed upon to buy more. Piccolino staff deserved the 12% tip on a bill of £93 for two, including 2 glasses of wine and 2 soft drinks. Piccolino siblings can be found in 21 locations, including York, Sheffield, London, Chester and Birmingham. Go on, its name may mean small, but it delivers big.