The multi-award winning, family-run Italian restaurant reaches a quarter century

You could say that we have the San Carlo group to thank for the general rise in quality of Anglo-Italian restaurants across the UK. Before they came along and introduced us to more regionally specific cuisine served in glamorous, marble-topped surroundings, Italian restaurants were more about giant pepper mills, red and white checked tablecloths and candlewax dripped bottles of Chianti.

It’s hard to believe, that only sixty years ago, the BBC managed to fool the nation with a three minute hoax video showing spaghetti being harvested from trees. In 1950s Britain, pasta was considered to be an exotic delicacy rather than an everyday food, although the more adventurous might enjoy a can of spaghetti in tomato sauce on toast occasionally. How different to today, when even small children can easily reel off the names of half a dozen different pasta shapes.

In 2017, the San Carlo group of contemporary Italian restaurants has grown to become a £60 million restaurant empire, but their story has more humble beginnings.

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The new paint job at Manchester's original San Carlo on King Street West San Carlo Instagram

Chairman Carlo Distefano was born in Sicily but moved to Britain in 1962 at the age of seventeen, with only £12, a work permit and the promise of a job at a barbershop. As a self-confessed workaholic and a natural entrepreneur, by the age of 20, Carlo had opened his first joint business venture, a hairdressing salon in Leeds, and had interests in a coffee bar and a disco.

But food was always Carlo’s primary passion and he would spend any free time in London where he’d dine at the best restaurants in the city – including the Savoy, the Dorchester and Simpsons. Soon Carlo’s passion for great food, style and service became his driving force.

But it wasn’t until 1992 that Carlo was in a position to open his first eponymously named restaurant, a humble twenty cover venue in Temple Street, Birmingham. It soon became the go-to place for celebrities, sports stars and loyal diners and Carlo had a success on his hands (the photographs lining the walls of various San Carlo restaurants make fascinating viewing). 

He opened his second restaurant in Bristol in 1996, followed by a branch in Leicester and then Manchester in December 2004, which has gone on to become possibly the highest profile, busiest restaurant outside London.

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Carlo Disterfano (right) with son and group MD, Marcello Distefano

Carlo has been joined by the second generation of the Distefano family and the San Carlo group now has twenty authentic Italian restaurants across the UK including Covent Garden, Piccadilly and Knightsbridge Green in London to Liverpool, Leeds and Cheshire with a growing number overseas – including Kuwait, Bangkok and Qatar, with new sites set to open in Bahrain, Dubai and Riyadh.

San Carlo has also recently been accredited by ASACERT. The body in charge of promoting real Italian food and ingredients has officially certified them as 'genuinely Italian' – from staff to produce.  

So, how has San Carlo managed to not only survive in the notoriously brutal hospitality industry, but thrive? It’s likely thanks to his passion for good Italian food, “without passion,” says Carlo, “it’s the worst job in the world.”

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San Carlo Cicchetti, King Street West, Manchester

In a world of chain operators and centralised kitchens, the San Carlo restaurant group remains defiantly independent. Each award-winning Italian restaurant is headed up by its own team of skilled chefs and management and works with only the best Italian seasonal produce – all underpinned by one thing – a passion for great food, service and style. On the menu you’ll find great examples of the classics along with some special regional dishes from the commonplace to the luxurious.

Now, after twenty years and still working seven days a week, Carlo has overseen the dramatic expansion of the business which employs over a thousand people across the globe and has won more than 30 industry and consumer awards.

“The key to everything is the quality of the ingredients - that is what it comes down to. Italian food is based on simple cooking. So if the quality of your ingredients is good enough, then people will come back”, says Carlo’s son Marcello.

He seems to have captured it in a nutshell. Go to any branch of San Carlo, San Carlo Fumo or Cicchetti for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, apertivo with nibbles, or a full celebration dinner and you’ll discover for the secret of their success for yourself.

Find out more about San Carlo here.