Review: San Carlo London
3 meals; 3 restaurants; 1 day
Over the last couple of years, we up North have become accustomed to the themed, pop-up style eateries that have been around in the Capital for years. Trend-led menus, speakeasy hideaways, gimmick concepts are all a huge part of what makes the London food scene.
The competition is fierce with chefs constantly trying to out-do one another. The food not only has to taste good, it has to look good too. It’s a city where you can enjoy a meal in total darkness, have an acrobat suspended above your table and where last month, over twenty thousand people signed up to be on the wait list for the first naked restaurant.
So how would a family run Italian restaurant fit in?
Here in Manchester, when it comes to eating out, San Carlo is an institution. Boasting six successful establishments within a ten mile radius, it has gone from strength-to-strength and is said to be one of the UK’s highest grossing restaurants.
But could it survive in a city like London??
I was intrigued to see whether San Carlo could hold their own in the Big Smoke and how they may have adapted to being in one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. With just 12 hours on the clock, I set off on a personal mission to test out each one and booked three meals, at three restaurants – all on the same day…
Breakfast: Cicchetti, Covent Garden
Stepping foot outside my hotel on The Strand was like slotting into a production line. The hustle and bustle of rush hour had kicked in; Covent Garden is no longer a place just for tourists.
Weaving in and out of locals on their way to work, round the corner from the Opera House, was my first stop. Stepping in was like entering a classic Italian delicatessen – meat and cheese laid out splendidly in the window inviting stomachs in. Gazing around as I was shown to my table felt, well, it felt like home. The signature Italian marble, Bottega’s blue seats, Fumo’s Venetian silk lighting and of course, no San Carlo gold table is complete without a fresh tomato centrepiece. Although the restaurant was fairly quiet, the waiters were up and about, preparing for the day ahead.
After chatting with Andrea, I went all out and ordered a vegetarian English breakfast. There’s not much you can alter on a full English, but I did find myself faced with a surprising selection of vegetables marinated in olive oil and ever so slightly charred. Sceptical about how I was going to finish four different types in one sitting, one bite made it evident, that would not be a problem. Here I was, sat with a plate that perfectly demonstrated the owner, Carlo Distefano’s brand values. “Taking the best that nature has to offer and transforming the simplest of ingredients into delicacies in their own right.”
As I tucked in, I was joined by the restaurant’s Executive Consultant: celebrity chef Aldo Zilli. Having known the Distefano family for years, even sharing chefs back in 90’s, once Aldo had parted with his restaurants, it didn’t take long (a week in fact), or much convincing, for him to join the San Carlo team.
Here, he works along side the owners, helping with the development and aiding the creation of seasonal menu’s, as and when the need arises. A regular fixture at the Cicchetti restaurants down South, he shared tales of famous diners, his favourite food experiences and we both fondly exchanged our Manchester San Carlo memories.
His charming and outgoing personality is infectious – the reason he’s so perfect for TV and radio, and the perfect ‘chef consigliere’ for this group. Like Carlo, he too is Sicilian-born, so shares the Italian food passion for regional diversity and fresh seafood.
I could have easily stayed and chatted all morning, but time was ticking away and a walk was in order to make room for the afternoon ahead.
Lunch: Signor Sassi, Knightsbridge
Aldo warned me I’d be surprised when I turned up at Signor Sassi. And surprised I was; taken aback almost by the bright Mediterranean blue exterior. The only thing ‘San Carlo’ about this place, was perhaps the font used in its name. A success in its own right since the 80’s, Carlo added this to his collection in 2007. The restaurant kept its original name, location, staff and chefs so you won’t find the usual fine details and understated glamour here. What you will find is the same level of personality, friendliness and the celebrity montage wall, a reminder that you are seated in the heart of Knightsbridge.
The clientele was a real mix. Special occasions, family reunions or a simple lunch for two, Signor Sassi attracts all types of guests, even International royalty have dined in this rustic Italian hideaway.
At first, I (naively) thought we were receiving special treatment as our chairs were pulled out, fresh bread, cheese and olives were immediately provided for us to graze on as we perused the menu, and the manager, Donato, coming over to say hello. It wasn’t until the tables around started filling up and the same process was followed for each and every diner that it was clear this was simply how things were done.
Opting on everyone at Cicchetti’s recommendation, Spaghetti lobster was all I could think of on the way there and all I could think of when I left. Served in its shell, but no tools required, the succulent lobster pieces were laced into the tomato-based pasta. The portion looked large after having only just eaten a full English a few hours before, but there was no way any part of this was being left. It took every ounce of self control not to pick up a bread piece and mop up the last bit of flavoursome sauce, but I couldn’t risk not having space for Dolci and afternoon tea (I was in London after all).
Exploring the rest of the restaurant, the upstairs rooms are worth a nosey. Theatrical masks are pinned to the walls and the bar is black instead of the usual grey marble, art deco inspired. Not much has probably changed in here since the 80’s, nor should there be any need to, if it works – it works.
A chorus of goodbyes set us on our way as the sun had come out just in time for an afternoon of city exploration before my last meal.
Dinner: Cicchetti, Piccadilly
“What kind of mad man would stick a luxury family-run restaurant in the heart of a tourist trap like Piccadilly?” Aldo chuckled, as we discussed my final stop for the day. Only Carlo would take a risk such as this he said, but then, ever the astute businessman… he obviously knew exactly what he was doing. As here I was on a Tuesday evening and it was packed. People were being turned away left right and centre, even on a weekday – booking was essential. The vibe here echoed that of San Carlo on King Street in Manchester, albeit on a smaller scale.
As this was a relatively quick stop, we decided to pull up a pew at the bar where the service is just as attentive as that of the tables. The Cicchetti menu is one I’m very familiar with and we ordered a small selection of the tapas dishes to share.
Looking around, you can understand how this has been likened to the flagship King Street restaurant. No matter what chaos or weather lies outside, walking in brings an instant lift to your spirits.
Dimly lit and intimate, it’s the perfect place to meet friends after a long, hard day. Whether that day has been spent at work or sight seeing, this Piccadilly venue is ready to welcome you with heavenly homemade smells and a multitude of drinks.
As time crept closer to the 12-hour mark, my day of culinary indulgence drew to a close.
I started this journey with a hint of doubt. Although I consider myself a huge supporter of the company, having dined in their Manchester restaurants for years, I am also guilty of getting swept up by the fads. Every trip to London is usually twinned with a dining itinerary, to source the quirkiest new venture that will provide me with ample photo opportunities to share out on social media.
Would I return to any of those places? More often than not, no. They serve their purpose as one time visits, too over-priced and heavily focused on style over substance to warrant a return.
But here, I’ve found three restaurants that tick all the boxes, without the over-the top-spectacles. Three places where you can unwind, let loose and enjoy a quality meal. So it’s no surprise people are pouring in through their doors.
For San Carlo to get to where they are today, the size that they are, and to still maintain that high quality and standard is somewhat of an achievement. During my chat with Aldo over breakfast, he pointed out that the success comes purely from Carlo, his skills as a business man combined with his passion for food.
There are hundreds of up-market restaurant chains, it’s easy enough to replicate the physical aspects as they expand, but how about the service? the quality? Is it possible to mimic such traits in a fine dining situation?
That’s exactly what San Carlo has mastered and that in itself is the key to it’s success.
Each London restaurant had all the friendliness and approachability of an Italian, no, scratch that – of a Northerner. As Norlys, the manager at Covent Garden aptly pointed out; “people in London are used to entering a restaurant, having their order taken and that’s it. But here at San Carlo we genuinely love getting to know our guests, we want to know not just how you are, but how your dog is too – Just like we do in Manchester.”
It’s comforting to discover that the secret to the San Carlo survival down South relies solely on its core values that I fell in love with up North.
An Aldo Zilli approved menu, fresh seasonal ingredients and an authentic Italian experience are it’s backbone.
It’s service… is its legacy.
** San Carlo provided a complimentary breakfast, however as always – all opinions in this post are my own **
Have you tried any of the London San Carlo branches? What did you think?