San Carlo has long been a city favourite, renowned for its authentic Italian food, sparkling service and fun atmosphere as well as its celebrity fans.
In December, the family-run restaurant will be celebrating 15 years in Manchester. Since opening in 2004, it’s fed over two million diners, including famous faces such as Rihanna, Tom Jones, Russell Crowe and countless footballers.
Ahead of the anniversary, we spoke to managing director Marcello Distefano about how the brand has grown, his favourite memories, and why he loves Manchester.
The San Carlo story began in 1992, when Marcello’s father Carlo opened his first restaurant in Birmingham. But Carlo always wanted to come back to Manchester, says Marcello when I meet him for a strong Italian coffee at the flagship King Street restaurant.
“Manchester was his home,” he says. “It’s where he grew up in business. He’d been in Manchester since the ‘60s. This was the big one to come back to.”
The award-winning group now has restaurants across the UK as well as in the Middle East and Asia. More recent launches under the brand umbrella include Cicchetti, Fumo and Bottega. But San Carlo will always feel like home, says Marcello.
“There are always one or two places, speaking as a restaurateur, which hit the nail on the head. And Manchester was our one.
“I don’t know if it’s the 200 covers in one space, but it creates such an atmosphere. People have said for years that they love coming to San Carlo because they can come on a Monday night and it feels like like a Saturday night.”
And it’s not just about creating a perfect well-trained service, he says.
“It’s little details, like the maitre d’ knowing all the customers. We’ve tried to focus on those traditional classic values of what a restaurant is all about. Sometimes we might get it wrong, but overall the success we’ve had over the years reflects that we’ve got it right.”
Marcello began working in the Manchester restaurant in 2005, a few months after it opened. But despite his dad owning the place, he started at the bottom and worked his way up just like everybody else.
“We just opened as I was finishing my business degree in London, and I decided that I wanted to come into the family business. So I came back to Manchester.
“And my father said, ‘well you have to learn the business, then’. So I spent the next four or five years working on the floor. I didn’t want to be a manager, I needed to learn from the experienced managers that were already here. I couldn’t just come in and start bossing them about because I was the owner’s son.
“I worked like everyone else. I worked a section, and doing the food at the pass. I learnt every aspect of the business. And then I got involved with the openings of the other restaurants. And over time, as we got bigger, I took on that role as managing director and we carried on growing the business.”
San Carlo has been popular with celebrities from day one, says Marcello. What are his most memorable moments?
“Tom Jones came in the first week we opened,” he recalls. “And then Sven-Göran Eriksson came in, and a lot of the football fraternity started coming to the restaurant. It got to a point where we had players from all teams here.
“And probably one of the best moments was the week before the penultimate game of the season for United. If they won the game, they’d win the league. Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs were in the week before, and said, ‘if we win can we come down?’. And they did.
“I asked how many of them there were, and he said the whole team. So we had to rejig the restaurant a bit on a busy Saturday to find space.
“They got off the bus, and brought the trophy into the restaurant. At that point, we lost control of the restaurant. People were up on the chairs clapping and singing songs. Everyone had a really good time, and people still mention it to me to this day.”
San Carlo never intended to be labelled a ‘celeb’ restaurant, says Marcello. “But of course it helps. It’s advertising your restaurant. And celebrities want to go out and have a good time and enjoy good food just like the rest of us.”
Marcello loves that the restaurant has touched so many people’s lives over the past 15 years.
“We’ve created a lot of memories for people. I’ve seen people coming in here as children, and they’ve now grown up and are coming back in with their own children.
“People have celebrated so many birthdays and anniversaries or special moments with us. We feel proud to be part of that.”
Marcello is also proud that the jewel in San Carlo’s crown is in Manchester.
“It’s my home. I’ve always loved Manchester – the warmth, the vibrancy. And I love that Manchester is so forward-thinking.
“We now have 21 restaurants in the UK and four abroad, and more to come including Manchester Airport next year. But this is a brand that was born in Manchester. And it’s not often that you have that, a brand born in Manchester that goes global.
“We’ve got six restaurants in Manchester and we’ve focused on the city for many years. It’s been very good for us. And we hope that we’ve contributed to the city as well.
“We love Manchester.”