Lucy Tomlinson steps away from the Spaghetti Hoops
I’m just about old enough to remember when pesto was a provocation and as long as your spaghetti wasn’t in the shape of a hoop and served on toast then you were doing pretty great when it came to Italian food.
Since then, Italian cuisine in this country has had more twists and turns than a piece of fusili. Yes, it will always be an old favourite – who doesn’t love pasta and pizza? - but it’s this very reliability that means it can get chucked about and bastardised by ne'er-do-wells.
What stands out about Sugo Pasta Kitchen is its absolute confidence.
Even bad "Italian" food tastes alright, compared to many of its competitors, and the fact that the base ingredients (water, flour) of the staple dishes are fairly cheap means that unscrupulous types take advantage of this good-hearted crowd-pleaser. So, while we fall for exotic new trends such as Japanese-Peruvian or hand-foraged Scandinavian, the original European starlet has languished in the background. It’s worthy of an operetta.
Recently though, Italian food has nudged its way to the forefront again. Don’t call it a comeback – after all it never went away. But now it’s definitely holding its own against trendy young things.
A lot of this (dare I call it?) Italian renaissance is due to ironic hipsters co-opting the American version of Italian food, with red sauce joints being the main source of inspiration. Cartoon hoagies and checked tablecloths are in. Currently, the world’s most stylish restaurant (if you measure that in celebrity appearances at least) is Le Carbone in New York, a high-end tribute to this kind of cuisine.
All this reminds me of a funny story when a customer posted a snarky review of Sugo Pasta Kitchen in Altrincham. The villain of the piece had a pop at this upstart independent, which brands itself as a "Southern Italian Kitchen", basing his criticisms on his own extensive experiences of setting up Italian restaurants across the country. But, plot twist, he was only the founder of Bella Italia, somewhere we can comfortable agree has not contributed to the understanding and appreciation of Italian food in this country. Boo, hiss!
But what of the plucky underdog? Apart from Southern Italy, Sugo’s spiritual forebear (in the UK at least) is probably the River Cafe in Hammersmith. While the rest of us were grappling with Dolmio, the River Cafe was explaining to English audiences the importance of just-pressed olive oil and getting the exact right tomatoes.
What stands out about Sugo Pasta Kitchen is its absolute confidence. They don’t serve pizza, for example, a dish with a good margin for restaurateurs - something that is hard to ignore these days. They have a restricted menu of - shock - just pasta and aficionados are happy to work their way through it on repeat.
I took a couple of Sugo old hands along to the relatively new outpost in Sale. With restaurants in Altrincham and Ancoats, they are obviously picking their locations with a keen eye to demographics.
The template is much the same. Long, chunky tables which diners are expected to share. Concrete floors and brisk but friendly staff.
Between the three of us we can cover most bases and we make a good dent in the menu. First up, the burrata (£8), which bursts with a satisfyingly wet plop and is mopped up with a crisp piece of sourdough.
Bruschetta Pugliese (£8) is more sourdough topped with fava bean puree and wild friarielli, two of my favourite ingredients. The bitter greens are punched up with chilli and while I still love the fava beans but wouldn't have minded them a bit chunkier.
To add a bit of crunch we also have the calamari fritti (£8.50), which is golden and crisp but otherwise not particularly memorable.
Then we come to the all-important mains. Friend One has the strozzapreti (£17) from June’s specials list with cod loin, bottarga, mussels and broccolini. She tells me it's because she fancies the classic scoglio but without the faff of pulling off the shells of the prawns. It doesn’t quite beat the scoglio in terms of depth of flavour but it is light and bright, with plentiful juicy mussels to satisfy her seafood cravings.
Friend Two orders strozzapreti "verdure" (£13) with courgette, broad beans and peas, with flavours of mint, ricotta and parmesan. I don’t even need to swoop in for a taste, I can smell the garden-fresh flavours from across the table. She’s a fan of the broad beans, which can go a bit mealy if not young enough, but these are positively infantile and the courgettes pass muster too. The slightly firm strozzapreti (which rather thrillingly translates as "priest-stranglers") is made by the De Leonardis family in Puglia, as is all the pasta.
A possible bum note was that our meal took a while to arrive. In fact, the server informed us that it was because they had decided one of the dishes had been over-salted and the kitchen had made it all over again. A lesser Italian (not looking at anywhere starting with a B) might have chanced it that their customer wouldn't have noticed.
I take one for the team and order the House Sugo (£15). The restaurant's signature dish of orecchiette is smothered in a ragu of slow-cooked beef shin, pork shoulder and ‘nduja. The sauce layers the little ears of pasta with a silky coating. It’s heartier than the other dishes, probably more suited to a winter night than the pale summer evening, but still, it's exactly the kind of pasta I set out to make at home.
That's the thing with pasta; because you can do a fairly good job yourself as long as you have good ingredients, it seems like it fails the "can I make it myself?" test that many of us use when navigating a menu. Time to face the cold, hard truth. I'll never make a ragu this good.
If the main menu is concise then the dessert list is positively severe. Just three main desserts plus ice cream from Ginger’s Comfort Emporium and affogato. The panna cotta is off so we share the chocolate nemesis (£7.50 ), a River Cafe favourite.
I’m not normally one for chocolate puds but this is sensational, rich without being overpowering, and livened up with maraschino cherries that your nan wouldn’t say no to. Friend One observes that it doesn't feel like Sugo gives quite the attention to the desserts that it does to starters and mains and that seems like a fair assessment.
Speaking of nans, the little silver dish that the sorbet comes in reminds me of mine. The lemon and mandarin sorbet, however, is nothing like the Walls ice cream she might have served. It’s an intensely lemony heap of icy sugar, citrus and sharp in the mouth, trailed by the pale ghost of mandarin.
A review can tell you all sorts of things - the quality of food, naturally, if the service was snappy or languorous. But there is something more ineffable that a reviewer tries to get across. This might come under the vague heading of “atmosphere” but I think “feeling” is even more appropriate.
Sugo Pasta Kitchen makes you feel like good food is your birthright. There is something so damn casual – but never imprecise or unconsidered - about it all. The scrubbed tables. The hearty sauces scooped up with a spoon. Like you’ve been eating that way your whole life and had never even heard of such a concept as spaghetti hoops.
Sugo Pasta Kitchen, 7-8 Stanley Square, Sale M33 7XZ
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
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.
Bruschetta 7, burrata 8, calamari 6, house sugo 9, seafood special 8, sorbet 8, chocolate nemesis 9