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Restaurant review: San Carlo

Angie Sammons finds style and substance and New York 1970s glam in the unlikely confines of Castle St

Written by . Published on January 25th 2010.


Restaurant review: San Carlo

WHEN Martin Scorcese made Goodfellas it was an innocent age.

1990? No. Well, yes. Goodfellas, the film, might have opened with the arresting scene of a bloodied, twitching human being in the boot of a car, but despite a cast of thousands, graphic vision and cinematic firsts, it took just one really sick mind to predict that years later Goodfellas would have its name and identity assumed by a not altogether pleasant supermarket frozen pizza.

Three more waiters swoop around us – Flash, Bang and Wallop - and we all do dolcelatte grins for the camera. “I take another of you, without them, so you not get into trouble with your 'usbands,” the first one offers, helpfully

Good then, that we still remember the movie for something else. Namely the 1960s and 1970s. Glamorous women, glamorous men, clubs, cocktails and Then He Kissed Me. The scene where gangster Henry Hill takes his date – and, crucially, a Steadicam - for a fabulous three-minute whirl through the kitchens of an Italian restaurant, serenaded by The Crystals. The scenes fold back, the camera remains constant for this big cinematic moment. It's an old idea given new dynamite and so it is in the theatre of San Carlo.

Already established in Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol, London and Kuwait, it was with some interest that we anticipated the Liverpool opening at the back end of last year in one of the old banks in Castle Street.

We knew that at San Carlo drama is the name of the game, and so it proved to be.

Step inside and everything becomes larger than life. Hand gestures are pronounced. Movement is sharper. They mime. They grimace hard. Voices are louder. And make-up, if they wore it, would be greasepaint. Villains would be evil. Maidens would get tied to railway lines with spaghetti and men would jump through pasta hoops to rescue them.

You suspend belief and we are now in 1970s New York. Expect Warren Beatty and not Warren Bradley, cilliegine and not Cilla Black, and you will understand why a bowl of simple pasta tastes anything but simple in this company.

I am there with a native New Yorker, a Studio 54 veteran, who has regressed to a familiar place in time.

Waiting staff are familiar too, as in familiar with the ladies. They might not spin plates, but they raise the eyebrow.

I get the camera out to take a pic of the octopus (no, not the office lothario three tables across) and am suddenly relieved of it by the Italiano man who used to work at Il Forno before he ran away with the circus. Here he sparkles.

Three more waiters swoop around us – Flash, Bang and Wallop - and we all do dolcelatte grins for the camera.

“I take another of you, without them, so you not get into trouble with your 'usbands,” he offers, helpfully.

But what about the food? It's good, fellas.

The octopus, a visual feast in its wafer thin slices (£7.95) may have had a bronoise of mozzarella and braised fennel, but it had much more to it – capers, tomatoes, and all in the best possible taste.

San Carlo makes much work of an ever-changing blackboard of fish specials: Dover sole, lobster, Cornish crab, whole turbot, North Atlantic halibut, langoustines and scallops, all on icy, bright eyed display and all welcome in the city whose restaurants often still worship at the altar of Thai fishcakes and salmon en croute.

Salsiccia e Lenticcie (£6.50), Italian sausage in a garlic and chilli lentil stew, was hearty and delicious. Proper peasant food meets bling.

We had to wait some time for the mains because the chef was chasing a jealous rival lover around the kitchen with a meat cleaver and shouting a lot of Sicilian curses. Perhaps not.

San Carlo peppers its menu with phrases and mottos, like “A tavola non s'invecchia mai,” or “at the table, one never gets old”. Luckily the plates arrived within a whisker of us beginning a discussion about hip replacements. The place was being hammered that night, was still finding its feet, and also, as it happens, we were having a good time and in no mood to mind.

Monkfish Trevigiana (£14.95) was a plenitude of superb, thick, yet delicate meat. Draped only in a simple tomato and white wine reduction, it was executed to perfection.

Polo Marinato alla Carbonella (£11.95) from the charcoal grill, meanwhile, presented itself as a flattened breast of chicken, still tender from an olive oil, garlic, black peppercorn, capers and lime juice marinade. But it was a wasted opportunity with all of Neptune's riches going on.

It's a big menu and there are pizzas, pastas and steaks in abundance to satisfy the populace, by now drugged by the reassuring, heady fizz of garlic hanging in clouds.

Large sides of spinach and garlic (£2.95), an avalanche of good flavoured sauteed potatoes (£2.30) and a huge bowl of addictive zucchini frites (£2.95) will ensure, well - large sides. They will also keep any lost Mediterranean Premiership footballer, though perhaps not his WAG, happy on a Saturday night. As will an astonishingly large and rich tiramisu (£4.95) to gawp at when the catch of the day gives way to Match of the Day.

Oh and they do like their celebs here. It's the San Carlo way, be warned. But have a livener at the bar and make like you've just walked onto a Scorcese set, then see if any heads turn. Steady now.

I loved San Carlo when I went. Ah, there I said it, and we only really knew each other for three hours. It knows what it's doing. Chatting its crowd up, massaging them with good food and wine. Sending them home with a fuzzy glow. It sold me in.

Once the first flush has worn off, I am told I will probably come to be irritated by the Hollyoaks crowd, and the beautiful Cricket set, et al, that will come to inhabit this place, by the pap shots on the walls. But I might not. It's only the widely practised style without substance that gets mine and most people's ganders up, and why shouldn't there be some of this stuff in Liverpool?

Yet, while we know San Carlo isn't wildly successful in other cities by accident, you'd be advised to leave this cynicism and more at the door. Go with the flow and let your senses work the overtime.

And like all theatre, don't take it all so bloody seriously.


Rating: 17/20
Breakdown: 8.5/10 food
3.5/5 service
5/5 ambience
Address: San Carlo
43 Castle St,
Liverpool.
L2 9SH
0151 236 0073

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5: Get the boot in; 6-9: Get in the boot; 10-11: The Codfather; 12-13: Robert De Niro's waiting; 14-15: Spaghetti western; 16-18: That's amore!; 19: Cosi fan tutti-frutti; 20: La dolce vita

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11 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

billy butlerJanuary 22nd 2010.

My wife went last Saturday with a party of 5. Food great waiting time DREADFULL !!

jayJanuary 22nd 2010.

Sounds from the comments that the Liverpool San Carlo suffers from the same problems as the Manchester one; terrible service from rude surly staff. Bit of advice to anyone going here, check your bill carefully because if their other branch in the region is anything to go by then an extra bottle of wine may magically appear on it.

Harold PinterJanuary 22nd 2010.

Try telling my agent that. It sounds more like circus, than theatre. Some loony Italian screaming, "he's behind you" as Pete Price enters the room, could disconcert sensitive visitors. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

jeanJanuary 22nd 2010.

ive got to agree with a lot of the comments above, after been to the restaurant twice i have been overcharged twice and not by just a couple of pounds. When the food arrived Ive got to say it was lovely

liverbirdJanuary 22nd 2010.

I went last saturday and it was great - seated at 6pm though, maybe thats the time to go if you dont want a loooong waiting time? Bar was pretty packed when we came to leave (about 830)

CazJanuary 22nd 2010.

Angie, looks like you were treated to better service than us. I booked with 4 friends for 8.30 the other week, we arrived at 8.20 and were greeted by a rather surley looking girl at the desk who suggested we have a drink at the bar. 30 minutes later we are still waiting and I had to raise the issue with the girl, who seemed to busy playing with her nails to even notice we had been waiting that long, she suggested i speak to the manager and another 10 minutes went by before the manager came to speak to me, instead of apologising or giving any explanation he curtly assured us our table would be ready very very soon. After a total of 50 minutes wait we gave up and left, went to MEET and were greeted by warm friendly staff and had a thoroughly enjoyable meal. If you make a restaurant reservation the restaurant should be obliged to meet that reservation, there was no apologies, no explaination and all staff we delt with were rude and unhelpful. What a shame, as all these basic hospitality skills cost a business nothing.

JeanieJanuary 22nd 2010.

We had the same bad experience as Mrs Butler,waiting for our 9o'clock table,we gave up after 3/4 hour, paid £60 for the wine we had ordered and went across the street to eat Italian! Go only if you are prepared to wait, and wait and end up talking about hip replacements!

Oxo KatieJanuary 22nd 2010.

I had a great night in San Carlo before Christmas. I had to wait a long time for our main courses, like Angie, but the staff were delightful and flirty and funny. You need to bat your eyelashes more, Jay.

Rage Against the Answering MachineJanuary 22nd 2010.

Forewarned is forearmed indeed.

Gordon RamesesJanuary 22nd 2010.

CorBlimey! Lovely food, spoiled rotten by crowded tables, hassled waiters unable to serve easily because of the lack of space, chair being knocked constantly. They really need to get a grip rather than trying to get a maxiprofit. They've lost our repeat visit, despite the high quality food

AnonymousJanuary 22nd 2010.

I visited this restaurant on a recent Sunday afternoon. The food was great but the service was one of the worst I have experienced in a Liverpool restaurant. We waited an hour for our staters, one of which was incorrect and the way the waitress dealt with this left a lot to be desired. We had to ask the staff if we could have the desset menu and then we were also charged for a round of drinks that wasn't ours. I suggest checking your bill carefully. I won't be rushing back, the pseudo famous are welcome to it.

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