Neil Sowerby narrowly avoids salt cod flashbacks at this neighbourhood gem

I suspect gondoliers don’t kick the arse out of lunch. After a hard morning’s punting around the Rialto they’re happy to pop into a backstreet bàcari for a couple of cicchetti – snacks of fritto misto, polpetto, sarde in saor, cuttlefish risotto maybe? Then it’s back to living the Cornetto dream.

There’s a real back story to those savoury doughnuts and their regional variations. I think we got an all-encompassing version for our £5.25

Ciao, Venezia. Here in Manchester for the last decade, thanks to a certain high-achieving Italian restaurant group, Cicchetti means a chic expanse of light grey marble and soft-focus pastels, designer shopping bags stashed under bar stools as Aperol Spritz is taken.

Cibus is not like that, though authentic cicchetti are definitely a major selling point. The former M19 club, once scuffed karaoke central in downtown Levenshulme, is unsurprisingly not big on marble. The proud Venetian who has converted it into a restaurant is giving Aperol short shrift in favour of his native city’s bitterer proposition, Select. 

A Busy Dining Room At The New Cibus Ristorante In Levenshulme
Levenshulme has taken Cibus into its bosom Image: Confidentials

Not that Giorgio Fontana is parochial. At the end of the meal, we also get a taste of Emilia Romagna as he plies us with Nocino, a liqueur made from unripe walnuts and definitely on the amaro side. Not that we were expecting a cheeky limoncello after the grown-up Italian meal we’d just wolfed.

There were always surprises in Cibus’ previous incarnation as a pop-up above Fred’s Ale House two doors away. Take jerk chicken, both as a main and a pizza topping. 

Well, there’s no place for it on the new menu, which is purist Italian regional with a leaning towards the Veneto and Sicily, birthplace of his head chef and partner, Marco Bracchitta. 

Cibus Levenshulmes Famous Salted Doughnuts
Salted doughnuts - essentially dough balls Image: Confidentials

We kick off with a brace of "Stuzzichini", the Mezzogiorno name for antipasti – much more appetising than a mankini but with a similar focus on bulge. If the cicchetti "small plates" to come are more "racion" than "tapa" size our zucchini fritti and salted doughnuts redefine what nibbles should be. They certainly contribute to our passing on pizza, speciality of both Giorgio and Marco, who met while working at Salvi’s. 

Cibus (pronounced CHEE-bus) means food in Latin - and here not just any old raw materials, as I gauged from my colleague Kelly Bishop’s interview with Giorgio ahead of Cibus Pizza’s reinvention as Cibus Ristorante.

Courgette Fritti At Cibus Ristorante
Crisp courgette fritti Image: Confidentials

There’s a real back story to those savoury doughnuts and their regional variations. I think we got an all-encompassing version for our £5.25, with pesto mayo, marinara sauce and crispy onion giving a crazy zest to what are essentially dough balls. You can see why they are popular on the Naples street food scene. 

The beautifully crisp deep-fried zucchini with parmesan (£4.50) were more restrained, perfect with a Sardinian Cannonau red (£32), one of the best expressions of the grape that elsewhere goes by the name of Grenache. Later, off a small but interesting wine list, we had a glass of Roero Arneis, the white you sip In Piedmont when you seek escape from tannic reds. Arneis means rascal because it is hard to grow. This floral example, all ripe peach and almond on the palate, was made to accompany the most delicate dish we tried – Orata all’acqua pazza (£10). Sea bream fillet, cherry tomatoes and spuds in white wine reduction. Rewarding in its simplicity.

Sea Bream At Cibus Ristorante
Sea bream - rewarding in its simplicity Image: Confidentials
Baccala At Cibus Ristorante
Just one course of baccala for Neil this time Image: Confidentials

It wasn’t as memorable, though, as another fish dish that dispelled my dreaded salt cod flashbacks. These date back to a tasting menu in Naples at a restaurant that was a homage to the stuff – so five courses all based on soaked and reconstituted salt cod (including a pudding). Molto orribile.

Not so this Baccala alla Vicentino (£10), a soothing stew of salt cod, with white onions, milk, a pillow of parmesan polenta, given a necessary jolt by a thicket of spiced al dente green beans. Just loved it, but it did prompt me to contact its creator the next day to query whether it contained the classic Venetian stoccafisso (the stockfish of medieval and Tudor England), confusingly also known as baccala. That differs from salt cod proper because it is not salted and dried but simply dried, so the moisture content is down to 15 per cent and it’s stiff as a board. Hence the need to soak for three to four days with repeated changes of water.

Guancette Ox Cheeks At Cibus Ristorante
Ox cheeks, hearty and substantial Image: Confidentials
Vitello At Cibus Ristorante
Pickles bring a welcome tang to vitello Image: Confidentials

A chastened Giorgio’s reply: “I’ve searched high and low with Smithfield fishmongers. They say there is so little demand and it’s so expensive. A shame. It would make it even more interesting in terms of texture.”

Cime di rapa (rabe or turnip tops, the heads of young rape before flowering) are also not on your average Italian restaurant’s hit list. Here this nutritious green is given the classic Puglian treatment I first encountered at Jacob Kenedy’s Bocca di Lupo in Soho. Orecchiette (£10) – the "little ears" pasta because of their shape – are served with boiled cime, dressed with garlic and chilli flakes plus, Cibus’ genius touch, diced fennel sausage.

Orecchiette At Cibus Ristorante Levenshulme
Little ears Image: Confidentials

Next up, the original Piedmontese surf and turf, flavouring a creamy mayo with tuna to dress cold sliced veal that has been simmered in various aromatics. Capers and pickles give a welcome tang to this exquisite Vitello tonnato (£9).

Guancette (£12) turns out to be ox cheeks braised in red wine and served with mashed potato and crispy parsnip shards. Hearty and substantial, it’s a final reminder not to over-order at Cibus. Still, when food is this consistently interesting, the antithesis of most trad Italian suburban restaurants, it’s hard to resist. A glowing gem – even minus all that marble. 

Cibus Ristorante 847 Stockport Road, Manchester M19 3PW

Cibus Bill

The scores:

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.

  • Food 7.5/10

    Zucchini 7, salted doughnuts 7, sea bream 7, salt cod 9, orecchiette 8, vitello tonato 8, guancette 7.

  • Service 4/5

    Genial Giorgio leads a slick operation from the front.

  • Atmosphere 4.5/5

    Buzzing. It has truly been clasped to upwardly mobile Levy’s bosom.