When the number of times you’ve been to a restaurant hits double figures, and you’ve never had anything but a roaringly great time, you know it is somewhere special.
Don’t get it twisted. Just because Piccolino’s is part of a growing chain that has seen it spread from Manchester to Nottingham, even London, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a restaurant of the finest kind. This, the original Piccolino’s, is set in a beautiful building, it has a manager and staff that give Roberto Benigni a run for his money in the comedy stakes, it has an atmosphere that crackles with unpretentious banter and laughter, and it serves up some of the best Italian food in Manchester.
People who are into Italian food in Manchester are generally divided into two camps: Piccolino fans and San Carlo lovers. While both have their merits, Piccolino’s has the edge, and is always packed to the rafters with loyal customers who return time and time again.
The venue is situated on Clarence Street off Albert Square, Manchester. The town hall is seconds’ away and the immediate area is mainly frequented by business types or shoppers. Piccolino’s has potentially lethal revolving doors at the front of the building, so make sure you have your wits about you as you enter, especially if someone is exiting the other way.
It always feels a bit crowded and claustrophobic at the reception desk, it may have even been an after thought when the restaurant was designed, but the member of staff at the desk will instantly put you at ease with a smile, and if the bespectacled manager is about, you will soon know about it, as he greets you in Italian and exchanges some pleasantries. If you’ve been before he is sure to recognise you, regardless of this you will get a friendly welcome, a small gesture that speaks volumes about the place.
The initial space is an expensive looking wood-panelled room with a long thin bar to the right and tables that spread out in clusters ahead of you and to the left. The front of house glass windows offer some natural light, but at night the in-house lighting gives a reassuring glow to proceedings. If you are waiting for friends to arrive, it can be a tad annoying as the waiting space between the bar and the nearby seating is only enough for a couple of people to squeeze past each other. As the larger restaurant space is found past this area, down some steps, it’s better to try and get seated straight away. In the bigger space, the open plan kitchen hugs the left hand side, the ceiling is very high up and the rest of the room offers longer and larger tables for groups of friends and family. Most are thick set vanished wooden tables, but some, towards the back, offer leather banquette seating as well and a bit more privacy than if you end up on a table in the middle of the room. Seating is pretty close together, so don’t be surprised if your conversation is audible to other people during your meal or vice versa.
The toilets are downstairs via a spiral staircase, those worse for wear after a few too many Prosecco’s ought to watch their step. The loos are pretty posh as it goes.
Reservations are absolutely essential here. Don’t presume you can rock up with a party of ten on any given night and get a table. Weekends are hammered with bookings, so book way in advance to avoid disappointment. If you are visiting during the week, you should be OK getting a table, this is not always the case, though.
Piccolino's attracts a cross section of people from the city of Manchester. You might see a club promoter sat next to a councillor, sat next to a hair stylist, sat next to a journalist, sat next to a student of life.
It’s very popular with couples enjoying a romantic meal and groups of friends. Family and work colleagues all come here to let their hair down and celebrate whatever the occasion.
Staff are great crack. Over a number of years, Picollino’s has retained a lot of the same staff members. This shows that not only does the venue look after their staff – we’re not sure if they get their 12.5% service charge, it’d be nice to find out that they do – but they enjoy their work. Cries of bacho, bacho, bacho! (kiss in Italian) are common place as the waiters are always game for giving birthday girls a kiss on the cheek. While this may sound a bit cheesy, it’s not. It is good natured and light hearted fun that brings a smile to people’s faces.
For a 5-star review, you’d think the food is out of this world, right? Well it can be, but not everything on the menu sparkles in the same way. Three dishes that very rarely dip below being absolutely stunning are: starter – sauteed chicken liver with grapes, marsala wine and pine nuts; main: roast chicken with gnocci, garlic butter and wild mushrooms; dessert: chocolate budino. The chocolate pudding is one of the best you are ever likely to taste, it is so good it is worth travelling long distances for. If the thought of chicken livers makes you a bit squeamish, the bruschetta is excellent, even simple things like the marinated olives, fresh bread and oils are a perfectly good way to start the meal.
The rest of the generous selection of mains includes pizza, pastas, meat and fish dishes. They always offer a few specials as well. The clams in white wine sauce (spaghetti alle vongole) is a Mediterranean classic and here it is solid if not spectacular. The clams are fresh and easy to pluck from their shells, and they sit on a bed of well cooked al dente spaghetti, but it is the white wine sauce that underwhelms. For one, there’s not enough of it, the chance to mop up the juices after the clams are demolished is missing here. It also lacks the rich intensity, which might allow it to set off fireworks on your taste buds, the chef could be a little looser with the garlic to settle this score. It is an enjoyable dish, while never being mind-blowing.
Onto the desserts and the pudding to beat down all competitors to the pudding crown: the chocolate budino. This comes as a warm upside down cup-shaped pud, the smell of which will have you slavering with anticipation. It is soft, the perfect temperature, and has chunks of delightful dark chocolate chips with every mouthful. It is served simply with a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream and the hot and cold contrast of pudding and ice cream is a joy to behold. Thinking of sharing this dish with a loved one? It could become fraught, you may even use your spoons as some sort of blunt fencing instrument in order to get the biggest half.
After dinner, they serve great coffee; the espressos are like rocket fuel. During dinner, wine is the order of the day. The selection is hand picked from Italy and it is all good, whatever your budget. It is pretty much exclusively Italian with a couple of exceptions made for a Spanish Rioja (18.65), a French Chablis (£25.75) and an Australian Pinot Noir (£26.90). The Italian’s are the business. If a restaurant’s list is only as good as its house wines then Piccolinos is onto a winner. The Sangiovesse Roccamore from Sicily is a deadly red that explodes with berry flavours and at £14.70 a bottle it’s a steal.
Other Italian classics on the menu include Prosecco (£5.90 a glass or £26.25 a bottle) and a twist on the after dinner favourite Limoncello called Limone (Limoncello, Cointreau and a twist of lemon - £6.55).
The Last Word
It may be part of an ever-growing chain, but the original Piccolino’s remains one of Manchester’s most loved and very best restaurants.