Abby Lowe finds a pudding pick-me-up at the new Italian on Lark Lane
THE last time I ate Italian food I was on the Amalfi Coast, which as a culinary destination, sets the bar pretty high - once you’re home, pasta pesto simply doesn’t cut it. So, it was with an anticipatory bounce in my step that I headed to MANI on Lark Lane one Thursday evening.
Our excellent hostess is friendly and full of smiles and tells me that she likes my outfit
Open since July, MANI is one of a cluster of independent restaurants on this foodie-heavy street. Owned by the Yum Cha folks on the nearby corner, it has a cute-as-a-button, pastel-shaded facade and warm, inviting lighting that calls to punters like tourists to gelato.
Their speciality is Italian small plates, and while I’m eager to fill my belly with bolognese, I confess this particular concept is one that I’ve always been wary of, not least because much like Joey, I don’t enjoy sharing (I’d also scream like Ross if you stole my sandwich), but also because the tiny portion premise seems almost anti-Italian to me; a person who is admittedly, non-Italian.
It’s pretty quiet on the night we visit, presumably because it’s so cold that most people have stayed at home on the sofa. That works in our favour though because it means we get the undivided attention of our excellent hostess who is friendly and full of smiles and tells me that she likes my outfit.
She recommends between two and three plates per person, suggesting that the best value option is the "Hands Full" menu because it comes in at £20 a head for seven plates and you can cherry pick what you want from each section. Diligently, this is what we do.
And so begins a deluge of Italian fare to our table, with seared scallops (£7.50) the first to arrive. Three plump, sweet scallops are piled on a rich bed of scallop roe bolognese, cooked for just the right amount of time but slightly charred for texture, well seasoned and topped with a stack of crunchy samphire and basil oil. I’m happy to bet that these are probably the best thing on the menu — uncharacteristically not saving the best till last for once.
What follows doesn’t necessarily reach the same high bar but does plenty to comfort the soul. The porcini mushroom croquetta (£4.50) served with basil oil and pesto mayo is apparently a menu favourite and it’s easy to see why. The dense, woody flavour of the mushrooms zips to life with a dab of not-too-eggy mayo — even my boyfriend likes them, and he doesn’t eat mushrooms.
The fritto misto (£7.50), a merry medley of battered, deep fried white fish and shellfish, is also great. The batter is lightly golden and crispy, as it should be, while the seafood remains succulent and moist, and the lemon aioli gives it all a nice, zesty kick.
But I’m most surprised by the polenta and mushrooms (£5), which sounds simple but is elevated by a combination of nourishing flavours that feel like they’re soaking into your bones. Happily, it avoids the consistency danger zones of too sloppy or sticky, instead striking just the right balance of sweet and hearty. Serve me this store cupboard favourite all December long, per favore, I want to feel it right down in my socks.
The least effervescent dishes are the ones I expect an Italian restaurant to really nail, which is a shame. The ox cheek parpadelle (£8.50) is a hefty portion of pasta but it isn’t al dente enough for my liking and the ragout lacks depth, despite a pleasing amount of chunky carrot.
The vegetariana pizzette (£6.50) is unremarkable — the base is thin and crispy, but I struggle to detect a hint of the smoked aubergine as described on the menu. And the insalata di contorno (£3.50) with rocket, tomato, shallots and basil oil, is indeed, all of those things, but not much else and presented with little fanfare. That’s not to say these plates weren’t enjoyable, rather one hopes for an Italian joint to really excel here.
But we end on a high note with a tiramisu (£5) so decadent I’d like to dive in face first. The whipped cream is firm enough to stick our spoons up in it; the sponge isn’t soggy (praise be, nothing worse!), and only a gentle whiff of coffee means we’re not kept up all night.
Perhaps it could have done with a bit more booze but by now I’ve already guzzled an easygoing glass of Prosecco (Fior de Cassia Frizante, £5.50) that tickled our tongues only ever so slightly, and then followed it up with a glass of the fruity house red (Lamura £5).
And so comes to an end this Italian experience in Liverpool, and while this one didn’t come with Mediterranean views or a topsy-turvy, coastal drive back to the hotel, it definitely wet my whistle for some good old Italian fare and left me feeling woozy and contented for the icy cold walk home.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Seared scallops 8, mushroom croquetta 6, fritto misto 6, polenta and mushrooms 7, ox cheek parpadelle 5, vegetariana pizzette 5, insalata di contorno 5, tiramisu 7
Attentive, helpful and oh-so-cheery.
A quiet night on the Lane.