Kelly Bishop goes in search of a vintage Italian gem but does she find it?
Nostalgia is so hot right now. The sixties were not only a utopia of love, music and drugs but also a refreshingly low level of CO2. We’ve all seen that graph. It’s time to make do and mend the planet.
Vintage clothes, barbershops and cocktail bars are all well and good but I’m hankering after the return of retro dining: devilled eggs, fondue, coq au vin, BFG. Give me Turkish delight-tinted nostalgia and a chequered tablecloth over Insta-styling and oozing burgers any day. I enter Vincenzo Trattoria - the unassuming Italian diner that moved into the old Frankie and Benny’s site at the end of 2019 - hoping for an old fashioned gem.
The waiter tells me in a soft Italian accent that my Tuscan hare ragu is an excellent choice. I feel very pleased with myself until it arrives.
Stepping in under twinkling fairy lights, the space feels welcoming and lively, though lacks an enticing whiff of garlic. The walls are decked with framed prints of famous Italian artworks. I haven't booked so I draw the short bucatini table-wise. Squeezed under an impressive, enormous arch, it seems a little awkwardly placed but my chair isn’t knocked into by passersby as much as I anticipate.
I eavesdrop a happy drunk on the opposite table talking loudly about “GON-duh-lers” and “YOU-raws” in a Wigan accent before ordering “seven sambucas and a limoncello” to round off his party’s meal. Wigan accents make me nostalgic too, having grown up in Chorley and misspent much of my youth in Wigan nightclubs - sambuca may or may not have featured.
As I wait for my tardy dining partner, let's call him Jimmy Pesto, I am quickly watered but getting wined proves impossible until he arrives 20 minutes later. Italian DOCG wines like Barolo and Chianti sit alongside “Merlot”, “Chardonnay” and “Sauvignon Blanc” on the list with no other details on country of origin, region, producer or vintage. With limited opportunity to grill the busy staff, we avoid the mysterious “house red”. Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (£5.75 175ml) and Chianti (£6.90 175ml) are both are acceptable but unremarkable - nice big fishbowl glasses and a “prego” in reply to my Mancunian “GRAT-see” give the illusion that things are fancier than they really are.
Insalata Caprese (£6.90) immediately drops the Italian flag to half-mast. Discs of mozzarella as rubbery and sexless as a high school condom application class are layered with slices of depressed beef tomato and drizzled with bland basil sauce. The whole thing is devoid of flavour and reflects the wine list’s nonchalance to sourcing. Little Italy? Lidl Italy, more like.
I suppose you could blame Brexit for the uninspiring produce but when other restaurants’ burrate ooze lasciviously at the merest touch of a knifepoint and even cheapish pizza gaffs are packing gloriously milky fior de latte, I have to call out this exercise in acedia.
We are provided with bottles of balsamic and olive oil to go with our starters. I give the olive oil a sniff, hoping for grassy and peppery. It smells like something that’s been at the back of a kitchen cupboard too long. I foolishly slosh some watery balsamic on my salad to try to pep it up a bit and instantly regret it. I don’t like food waste so, like a stoic child tied to a contract involving clean plates and after dinner street football, I eat up.
A duo of overcooked arancini (£5.90) presents scant oozy filling and a vague rumour of the microwave pouch. If the rice is freshly cooked arborio, perhaps the seasoning is what makes it taste cupboardy. There are far better examples of this Sicilian speciality available elsewhere.
The waiter tells me in a soft Italian accent that my Tuscan hare ragu (£16.90) is an excellent choice. I feel very pleased with myself until it arrives. It’s not terrible, just over seasoned, heavy on the pedestrian veg chunks and a bit, well, half-arsed. It’s served over pappardelle that’s both soggy and stuck together. Having eaten some of the best meals of my life in Tuscany, this is no postcard on a plate.
Jimmy Pesto drags a fork through the PVA-textured sauce that comes with his Pollo Deliciozo (£17.50), identifying its components as stock cube, flour and water. The chicken is nicely browned, stuffed with asparagus and wrapped in parma ham, but a little dry. Sautéed potatoes with dried rosemary (£3.95) are fine and a mixed salad (£3.95) is squeaky fresh but comes with no dressing and I don’t want to go near that olive oil.
We crane our necks as wagon wheel sized pizzas sail past us on the way to other tables. They look decent. I'd hedge my bets on one of those if I came here again.
The presence of “lemon gelato with a liquid limoncello core” on the dessert menu reminds me of an Indian restaurant I used to go to in Prestwich in the nineties where all desserts were frozen variations on a Viennetta.
As the waiter approaches, I ask his name.
“Lee” he whispers in a wavering Italian accent.
“Lee?” I reply, “Where are you from?”
“Manchester,” he says, with a conspiratorial wink.
He’s been faking the Italian accent. When he reappears to take the dessert order, his cover fully blown, he tells us in full Salford that the tiramisu (£5.30) is made in-house.
This large slab of whipped cream, sugar and egg white has a cumulous Italian meringue texture but no hint of mascarpone or yolky zabaglione. Its airy cake layers have swiped left on marsala. I know booze isn’t a prerequisite but I like my tiramisu flammable. Still, it’s the best bit of the meal.
There are two types of restaurants in Italian tourist cities: restaurants for Italians and restaurants for tourists. Vincenzo reminds me of the latter. It’s doing ok with a customer base of Brits-not-abroad due to COVID, and less savvy tourists but to get the enthusiastic Manchester foodie vote, it’s got a long way to go. My search for the quintessential retro gem continues.
Vincenzo Trattoria 34 St. Ann Street, Manchester, M2 7LE
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.
Arancini 4, insalata 3, pappardelle 4, chicken 4, tiramisu 6.5
Staff were working hard and friendly - Lee's audacity really made us laugh
Some tables are better placed than others but there is a convivial vibe. My advice? Try and bag a cosy corner booth.