After 25 years in business, Birmingham’s San Carlo restaurant is still leading the way when it comes to authentic Italian fayre. Amy Norbury discovers more
When it comes to Italian food here in the Midlands, one Birmingham restaurant has paved the way and set the bar for dining in true Italian style. San Carlo has earned its reputation over the years by pioneering exceptional ingredients, with fresh, seasonal delights flown in from the best produce markets across Italy to ensure authenticity of flavour.
As the original Birmingham restaurant – which has spawned sites nationwide and even internationally over the years – celebrates its 25th anniversary, J’AIME was invited along to discover exactly what it is which keeps diners coming back for more.
The restaurant enjoys a prime spot in the heart of the city centre, and on the Friday evening of our visit the atmosphere was buzzing as diners packed in to enjoy what is billed as the best Italian cuisine for miles around.
We were shown to a quiet table for two downstairs, near to the kitchen and with a little more breathing space than many of the tables, which are packed tightly together in true convivial Italian style.
Aperitifs were duly ordered – a classic peach Bellini, £8.90, for me and a Birra Moretti, £3.30, for my husband – to sip while we perused the menus. It was definitely a wise move to get the drinks ordered swiftly as the menus – that’s plural – are some of the heftiest tomes I’ve ever encountered in a restaurant. The whistlestop tour of the best in Italian regional cuisine takes in antipasti, grill specialities such as the tomahawk steak and a broad range of mouth-watering meat, pizza and pasta recipes. And that’s before you get onto the separate daily specials menu which includes a further 15 starters, chef’s recommendations and a wide selection of seafood dishes including fresh lobster. I have to confess that I didn’t even look at the extra blackboard specials, for fear of menu blindness.
If you can’t find a dozen dishes to tickle the tastebuds here then you never will – and that’s the problem. There were so many delicious-sounding options that narrowing it down to just the one was a task in itself.
But we persevered and, after much deliberation over the merits of each individual dish, decisions were made.
To start, I had toyed with both the lobster ravioli and the fegatini di pollo – chicken livers sauteed with chestnuts and marsala – but plumped for the gnocchi al tartufo, at £8.50, from the specials menu. This was gnocchi unlike any I’d tasted before; coated in a crispy crumb, rather like a gnocchi croquette, and lounging in a decadent pool of parmesan fondue adorned with a generous scattering of black truffle, this was indulgently rich and packed a huge truffle punch. A great start, and every single morsel was polished off.
My husband’s melanzane al forno, £7.70, was another triumph. He’s not normally a huge fan of aubergine but fell in love with this particular dish when he sampled it at another Italian eatery. And he was delighted that San Carlo’s version lived up to expectations; with a topping heavy on the parmesan and a flavourful tomato sauce, this baked aubergine dish really showcased simple ingredients to their very best.
We happily sipped on our wine, a rather delightful bottle of montepulciano, £27.20, which was smooth and soft with lovely berry notes, while we waited for our main courses to arrive. However, as the wine started to run out and with no food in sight, we had to ask a waiter to enquire as to the whereabouts of our meal.
Service had been haphazard throughout the evening, ranging from friendly and attentive to a little brusque and quite slow as the evening progressed.
So it had been a rather long wait, but once again the food didn’t disappoint. My halibut with lobster sauce, £19,50, was cooked to perfection; the fish firm and meaty and the accompanying sauce – served in its own miniature copper saucepan, no less – was delicately infused with lovely lobster goodness and complemented the halibut beautifully. Side dishes of sauteed potatoes with bacon, onion and rosemary, £3.20, as well as zucchine fritte – deep-fried courgettes, £3.80, which were presented in a sizeable mound – were well executed and worthy accompaniments.
My husband had been tempted by the various steak options, including the decadent fillet steak and lobster version of surf ‘n’ turf, but the lure of a hearty pasta dish won the day. His tagliolini con granchio – thin ribbons of egg pasta with hand-picked Cornish crab, sweet Sicilian cherry tomatoes, saffron and a touch of cream, £14.95 – was satisfying comfort food at its finest, with the sweetness of the crab and tomatoes balancing the richness of the cream nicely.
It had been a rather long evening and, with time not on our side, we nearly didn’t order dessert. But only nearly. Luckily the final event was much swifter in arriving than our main course and we were soon tucking into our puds; a perfectly wobbly panna cotta, £4.90, with a sharply sweet fruits of the forest sauce for my husband, and a huge portion of caramel ice cream topped with crushed nuts and caramel sauce, £5.30, for me.
The quality of food, above all, it what San Carlo has built its reputation on, and what sets it apart. And whether you’re after lobster and Champagne or pasta and wine, there’s something for every diner. If you’re looking for a true taste of Italy, you won’t be disappointed.