The Olympic-like flames have been burning outside San Carlo in Corn Street since 1996, which makes this Italian restaurant one of the longest-running in Bristol – quite an achievement when many places are pulling down the shutters before the first year’s accounts are filed.
And yet despite its impressive 23-year run and the fact it always looks busy, I rarely hear people – or, at least, locals – talking about the place. When it first opened, it was populated by long-lunching, expense account-wielding bankers but now the banks are gone it’s almost as if the restaurant is reserved for celebrations and tourists.
But then I’m as guilty as the next diner for not eating there as much as I perhaps should and I’ve had a rollercoaster relationship with San Carlo since it opened in 1996. My first review, the week it opened, was far from favourable but in the intervening two decades, I’ve been back a few times and had far more enjoyable experiences.
(Image: Carl Sukonik)
At one point, and in the interests of accountability in these transparent times, the San Carlo owners even approached me to do some press for them, a short-lived conversation as I know my limitations and there are already too many grizzled old journalists out there trying to be grinning PR people.
But it’s hard not to be impressed by the San Carlo backstory. It was started in Birmingham in the early 1990s by Sicilian-born Carlo Distefano.
Now 75, Distefano started out as a barber. He arrived in England in 1962 with £12 and a work permit to take a job at a Leeds barber shop.
The San Carlo group now has over 20 restaurants in the UK and Middle East and the last figures I saw revealed an annual turnover of around £50m. Not bad for a business started by a hairdresser who left his native Italy with a third class train ticket in order to find employment.
With its high ceiling, mirrored walls, marble tables and blue lighting, the Bristol branch of San Carlo has a bling-like wow factor. Shy and retiring it isn’t.
As with all branches, there are walls of framed photographs showing past celebrity guests – an impressive gallery of footballers, ex-footballers, football managers, ex-football managers, politicians, Tom Jones and, er, Katie Price.
Staff in crisp white shirts, red skinny ties and long black aprons are immaculate and well-groomed as the restaurant itself and they walk around the room with that familiar, old school Italian swagger, a mix of attitude and professionalism.
The menu at San Carlo is extensive, with 20 pasta dishes alone and just as many pizza options and meat or seafood main courses.
My friend kicked off with the classic insalata Caprese (£7.95) – a cool and refreshing plate of avocado, beef tomato and mozzarella di buffalo with the red, green and white elements representing the tricolour of the Italian flag.
(Image: Carl Sukonik | The Vain Photography The Vain Ltd. email@example.com 07947484641)
I started with gamberoni Luciana (£10.50) – an old favourite comprising firm tiger prawns languishing in a creamy, spicy, rust-coloured tomato sauce spiked with chilli and garlic. I’ve been eating that dish for 20 years and it thankfully never changes.
Fish and seafood is something of a specialty at San Carlo, whether it’s a dish of ravioli filled with salmon flambéed in vodka and pink peppercorns or a classic lobster thermidor.
We both took the piscine and shellfish route for our main courses. From the specials, the grand-sounding ‘coda di rospo aurora’ (£19.95) – was a generous plate of juicy monkfish fillets in a rich and robust red peppercorn, cream and tomato sauce bolstered by a few prawns.
Spaghetti vongole e gamberoni (£15.40) arrived at the table in a swan-shaped foil parcel, which was slit open to reveal plumes of seafood-and-garlic scented steam and a mountain of spaghetti, baby clams and prawns in a garlicky tomato sauce. It was the essence of meals enjoyed on the water’s edge in Italian fishing ports.
(Image: Carl Sukonik)
To finish, a heft slab of tiramisu (£6.30) wasn’t the overly sweet dessert often served up in Italian restaurants, with a pleasing bitterness from the coffee and sour edge from the mascarpone. Light and airy profiteroles (£5.95) drizzled with lashings of hot, dark chocolate sauce were unimprovably good.
As I paid up, I looked around the packed room – every table was taken by 8pm on a school night – and could see families with kids feasting on pizzas and heaps of shellfish as more diners arrived with huge foil ‘21st’ birthday balloons to decorate a large table at the back.
The atmosphere was buzzing and crackling more than any Bristol restaurant I could think of, and that’s precisely why San Carlo is still as busy today as it was 23 years ago.
Yes, it’s brash and it’s bling and, yes, you will probably find more refined food in some of the city’s cooler, newer independent Italian restaurants, but when it comes to authentic Italian cooking in a room with a genuine wow factor and one of the best atmospheres of any restaurant in the city, San Carlo has the lot.
San Carlo, 44 Corn Street, Bristol, BS1 1HQ. Tel: 0117 9226586.
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