[Hale Barns, Greater Manchester] San Carlo Fiorentina

As far as I could tell, the San Carlo experience for the diner has been pretty much untouched by coronavirus. Apart from Perspex sheets forming a small screen between the booths, and some of the urinals in the gents being taped off, it seems the post-lockdown situation is just like the pre-lockdown one. It didn’t look as though tables were spaced more than previously and, unlike most restaurants we’ve been to since July, staff were not wearing masks nor distancing themselves from tables more than they previously did. So, not necessarily the most reassuring situation, but it didn’t feel unsafe. And, as you’d hope with a San Carlo restaurant, there’s bags of atmosphere – it’s busy, noisy, blingy and there’s always the chance of seeing a celeb on the next table (a well known boxer in this case). We had a family member with us but, as usual in such circumstances, I’m only going to write about the food my companion in life and I ate.

As for the food, they’ve pared down the menu a bit. That’s a good thing. It was always overly long. We both started with pasta – some dishes are available as starters or main courses. One was lobster and crab ravioli. Three ravioli, filled with well-seasoned seafood dressed with a creamy peppercorn sauce. Light but very flavoursome. The other was much more butch – the classic rigatoni alla Norma. I’ve often ordered this here and it’s a belter. Unctuous would be the word, with chunks of soft long-cooked aubergine in a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce, mixed through the perfectly al dente pasta. Yes, I know I’ve written “perfectly” twice – it’s how well I regard the dish.

There was another classic dish for one of the mains – saltimbocca. Thin slices of veal topped with a sage leaf and ham and a light white wine and butter sauce. It’s delicious. As was a perfectly (that word again) cooked fillet of seabass, topped simply with gremolata. In the Italian tradition, spuds and veg are extras and we ordered a bowl of zucchini fritti to share. A generous portion of shreds of courgette, battered and deep fried, which add more crunch than flavour to the plate. If we’re having pasta starters, we don’t usually order spuds with the main course but greed got the better of us and we settled on a plate of potatoes sautéed with bacon, onion and rosemary. Oh, yes, we managed to force them down very nicely.

And there was still room for dessert. I know tiramisu is a fairly recent creation but it’s become a “modern classic” and I can rarely resist it. Previously I would have rated San Carlo’s version as the best I’ve tasted anywhere. But they’ve changed the recipe. There’s no longer a good kick from coffee and booze and, sad to say, this was really just the overly sweet gloop you get in most places. Very nice sweet gloop, but still gloop. The other one was their take on a millefeuille – crisp, flaky pastry and well made custard. What’s not to like?

We finished with good espresso. Service had been fine perhaps best described as “brisk and efficient”. It is never a cheap night out at San Carlo – very much a case of getting what you pay for – but it worthy of note that they’ve continued with their own version of the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, so there was thirty quid off.