Yes you heard right. This Italian restaurant chain might have been designed by one of the finest Milanese architects Matteo Thun, but the concept was born in Hamburg, Germany. That was back in 2002, when the founders launched their flagship self-service restaurant offering fast and casual Italian food. Fifteen years later, with over 160 restaurants over five continents, it’s fair to say the chain is catching on.
Their Manchester restaurant opened back in 2015 with the re-launch of the impressive £30 million Corn Exchange development. The huge site over two floors offers communal dining to over 400 customers with extensive mezzanine seating for maximum people-watching overlooking the stunning atrium, and outside seating in Exchange Square for sunny days if we ever get one.
What we liked immediately on our visit is the beautifully designed, light, airy and fresh space. It doesn’t feel like a chain at all. Long oak tables may be an open invitation to a bit of communal long table dining but lets face it, we’re still very British, and with the space as huge as it is we can spread out in comfort.
On arrival we were greeted by the first of very many helpful, cheery staff who provided us with our self-service smart card for use on any of the six chefs stations, serving antipasti, pasta, risottos, salads, pizza and desserts. Drinks are table service so our well-chilled bottle of Monte Schiavo Verdicchio Classico arrived promptly as we were still looking at the menus.
What’s evident from the start is that this place operates super-efficiently. Each station is well prepped and ready to go, so that when you do place your orders and present your card – it’s like using contactless – it’s only a few minutes until your food is ready. Pizzas taking the longest at around twelve minutes. What’s also fantastic is that you can cater any dish to how you want. Just ask the chef.
With more than ten pastas made fresh on site daily in their ‘manifattura’ there’s plenty of choice in this section. We opted for the Salsiccia Con Fichi with some of the best spicy Italian sausage we’ve ever had the pleasure of eating – onions, fresh figs and tomato sauce, with some extra chilli requested to heat things up.
The Strawberry Spinach Salad from the insalata station (that’s salad for anyone who doesn’t speak Italian) sounded unusual enough so we gave it a try. It’s a grower. On first taste you will question whether the goat’s cheese goes with the fresh strawberries and raspberry-maple dressing. It does. After a couple of mouthfuls, everyone is fighting to finish the bowl.
And a rather special Fiorentina pizza. Great dough. Crisp base. Generously covered with spinach, egg not too runny (as requested), anchovies, black olives, fresh tomato sauce and Grana Padano D.O.P. which was worth the visit alone.
We should also mention the beautiful green herb gardens decorating the restaurant. Not only do they provide some colourful green foliage to this already refreshing space, they are another option for your self-service and personal taste. Fancy a bit more basil on your pasta? Just help yourself. What a lovely touch.
Popping over to take a look at the dessert counter, we were talked into trying their Bacio as the server couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. His description of a mousse meets a cheesecake, but nowhere near as sweet as their white chocolate Cioccolata Bianca version, sounded dreamy. And that it was. Not one for too much sweet stuff and normally happy to share, this baby was all mine.
Although lunch was speedy, it was also extremely laid back. Lack of servers didn’t mean lack of service. The food was fresh, fast and well priced with everyone at the table wanting to return to try some more. And the space is simply a breath of fresh air.
Buon appetito. Or should we say guten appetit?