Ruth Allan discovers sunshine on a plate at this tiny Sicilian specialist
SINCE the rise of #instafood, stumbling across a hidden gem almost never happens in Manchester. Occasionally, however, the Holy Grail of the food world shows up – and William Sicilian restaurant in the Northern Quarter fits the bill. So much so that I’d not seen a single post about it before lunch last week.
Nutmeg-infused silken spinach and ricotta cannelloni are cooked with as much care as at Michelin-star contender Tast
Decked in cactus memorabilia and parrot paintings ("They remind me of sunshine," owner Andre Carmen explains, as if they were the most obvious passion in the world), this pocket-sized space has been trading as a Sicilian café for around a year now.
Carmen, who is both engineer and entrepreneur, took over Williams Sandwich Bar in the Northern Quarter with the ambition of serving real food from her hometown of Catania. And unlike some of the city’s larger F&D operators (Stock, we’re looking at you…) she simply got on with it, keeping the exterior almost exactly as it was before, right down to the Williams Sandwich Bar banners over the windows. On closer inspection, there is a subtle red, white and green theme – and a small panel mentioning Sicilian food outside. But this is hardly your typical Italian restaurant in England.
House specials are Italian cakes and sweets. Crisp canola (£4.20) shells as thick as your wrist, stuffed with sweet ricotta cream and dusted with crushed pistachios, or tarte del nonna; a fabulous, lemon-scented, vanilla custard-filled delight decked in pine nuts and the most delicate, crumbly pastry this side of the Channel.
The tiramisu (£6) is the best I’ve had in Italy or otherwise. Sponge fingers, soaked in coffee (brewed in a traditional stove-top espresso maker, Carmen points out), and rich mascarpone cheese combine to create layers of intensity that build to a crescendo. "Oh my god," my friend enthuses, eyes half-closed in reverie, "it’s awesome."
The menu includes hangovers from the Williams Sandwich Bar era; English breakfasts (£8/£9), for example, burgers and jacket potatoes. There are also panini filled with Italian mortadella and mayo, or chicken and pesto (£4.80). But I’m here for the more Sicilian stuff.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, I finally settle on two arancini. Norma (£4.80) is an immaculately seasoned, moist rice ball, delicately infused with tomato and dressed in a crisp breadcrumb shell. There’s a thrill of hot, molten parmigiana at its core that sets the whole thing off. The cheese béchamel and ham edition has more of a retro appeal, bringing to mind Findus Crispy Pancakes, but they’re both excellent.
Carmen points out that spaghetti carbonara (£9.60) is not one for the creamy pasta fan. It’s good though; al dente spaghetti, smooth egg yolk, a sprinkling of ridiculously pungent Pecorino Romana DOP that she’s so pleased with, she gives me an extra portion on the side.
Gnocchi (£9.60) with the house ragu is another hit, while nutmeg-infused silken spinach and ricotta cannelloni (£8.40) are cooked with as much care as at Michelin-star contender Tast, a stone’s throw, on King Street. A portion of aubergine parmigiana (£7.80) is pure, slow-cooked tenderness. In short, it’s all good.
Drinks include sweet almond milk (£4) – a Sicilian speciality made from a marzipan-like paste – and freshly squeezed OJ (£3.60) from unmarked bottles. There are sparkling Italian Galvanina soft drinks too, and the sarsaparilla-ish pomegranate (£3.60) comes out on top.
So. Williams is an everyday kind of place with everything available to go and limited space to eat in. As such it differs from other Manchester Sicilian restaurants, such as A Tavola. Based in Reddish, A Tavola’s tiramisu is also excellent, and they do those chickpea chips (now also on the menu at the Creameries, and, I noticed last night, at Mr Cooper’s House in the Midland), and thick-based Sicilian pizzas.
Yet, in the spirit of genuinely casual Italian dining in the city centre, Williams is hard to beat. The only downside, perhaps, is that it is quiet and priced in that awkward middle ground between restaurant and sandwich bar. The food is great though and, since posting about it on Instagram, it turns out that loads of my friends are already fans. My verdict? Enjoy a bit of sunshine on your plate and keep this quirky independent in the game.
45 Hilton Street, M1 2EF
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.
Norma arancino 9, cheese arancino 8, carbonara 7, gnocchi 7, cannelloni 7, parmigiana 7, cannoli 9, Tarte del Nonna 9, tiramisu 9.5
Helpful and generous
A bit on the quiet side