AN old friend has been through some difficult times. All’s well now but you’re still hesitant about dropping by. That was the case with Piccolino Caffe Grande, closed for seven weeks after a minor fire triggered substantial sprinkler damage but now reopened.
We needn’t have worried. The space is back as handsome as ever with all that brass, marble and light blue leather upholstery, inspired apparently by legendary Italian yacht builder Riva. That all cost £1.6 million when they transformed the dowdy original in 2016 and they are set to spend a further £400,000 in the New Year converting the basement into an events space. You have to constantly upgrade against stiff opposition from the glitzy likes of San Carlo and Rosso. But how does the food stand up?
In truth it’s always been just part of the entire Dolce Vita package led by veteran front of house Ettore. Like sommelier George Bergier round the corner at Sam’s Chop House he’s an essential ‘part of the furniture’. We could have sat all evening sipping Negronis at the bar, imagining we were in Milan.
Ordering was more of a trial. Two dishes we wanted to try off the menu weren’t available and when our starters did arrive they weren’t ours. Ettore to the rescue and calamare fritti and carpaccio di manzo arrived presto.
The calamari (£8.50), served with garlic mayonnaise and lemon, and the dressed raw beef fillet with rocket and Gran Padano shavings (£10.75) are on every Italian restaurant menu. Neither here disappointed but did not excite. Mains were a step up.
I only ordered the Anatra because my favourite Vitello Milanese (with rose veal) was absent. The pairing of crisp, slow-cooked duck, almost confit style with pears (not apples as it said on the menu) and an intense Valpolicella sauce was a perfect autumnal dish (£17.75). Perhaps it called for a heftier red than my Pinot Nero (£11 a large glass) from the Trentino, but its delicate cherryish restraint worked well here.
Another Boutinot-sourced wine, an Abruzzan white, accompanied my neighbour’s Merluzzo. This wild Atlantic cod gets a quite rustic treatment involving spicy Calabrian sausage and broccoli, so the sturdy, nuttiness of a Pecorino Colline Pescaresi Caparrone was fine fit.
For pud back to another Italian classic, too often taken for granted and left festering for days in the chill cabinet. Not at Piccolino. The tiramisu is made fresh ever day and it shows. Not as intense as some, just a modest creamy delight.
Outside, across in Albert Square, the Christmas Markets lumbered on. Best experienced from a distance, in the warmth, over a Piccolino Negroni.
Piccolino Caffe Grande, 8 Clarence Street, Manchester M2 4DW. Tel: 0161 835 9860.