Regular readers of Northern Soul know that we love to celebrate every aspect of the North of England. So when I was invited on Bella Italia’s Guided Dinner Party across Manchester, which promised to celebrate the background and history of its Italian roots, I couldn’t resist. Cultural enrichment and carte blanche on a selection of exquisite food? Count me in!

The gastronomic tour – around the city centre with stops at Bella Italia’s three restaurants – was led by Sue McCarthy of Green Badge Tour guides, whose endless fascination with Manchester translated into every syllable. Despite having lived in Manchester for more than six years, I was suddenly very aware of knowing relatively about it.

Our first stop was just off Market Street, next to the age-old ice-cream van that many Mancunians have walked past for years without ever looking twice. I’d always known Manchester to be a vibrant melting pot of cultures, especially given its status as one of the world’s foremost industrial boom-towns, but I’d never thought to investigate its international heritage. I knew that Italians began moving to the UK in the late 18th century, and I’d been vaguely aware that they’d pioneered the growing ice-cream industry in the North West. But I wasn’t aware that Manchester was the birthplace of an early form of the ice-cream cone, an invention by the Italian Antonio Valvona to meet a sharply rising public demand while simultaneously cutting down on the waste and poor hygiene that resulted from the constant re-use of bowls.

Bella Italia, DeansgateAlso new to me was Jerome Caminada. An eccentric investigator often hailed as the ‘Italian Sherlock Holmes of Manchester’, Caminada caught in excess of 1,200 criminals during his long career. A legendary master of disguise, his own boss once failed to recognise him.

My favourite tale of Caminada – and perhaps that of the entire tour – was the story of his successful attempt to catch a thief stealing valuable material from prestigious musicians. His solution was to hide in a grand concert piano for more than twelve hours, using a peep-hole to spy on the world outside. This attempt was briefly hindered when an orchestra member placed her viola against the piano, but eventually Caminada apprehended his man.

McCarthy regaled us with these tales outside one of Caminada’s old haunts: St Mary’s Church on Mulberry Street, otherwise known as the Hidden Gem. The tour was filled with legends like these, and McCarthy’s enthusiastic tales of Italian culture and its place in Manchester’s history were reinforced by the food served up in each of Bella Italia’s three branches (incidentally, 2016 marks marks Bella Italia’s 15th year of trading in Manchester).

We began in the Arndale with generous sharing boards of Legume and Calabrese Antipasto, shipped from the Southern region of Italy. For me, the highlights of both platters were the Buffalo bocconcini mozzarella balls, which I assure you were a lot easier to eat than they are to spell. Later in Deansgate the staff had wisely proportioned the food so that all members of our party had the pick of whatever we liked, which was just as well or someone may have lost a finger.

Between a gorgeous, stuffed-crust pizza topped with pepperoni and pancetta, a lamb shank that fell off the bone, and several mouth-watering pasta dishes, it was quite the dilemma to decide what to go for first. With healthy helpings of Prosecco (I’m a big fan of Prosecco), I attempted to try everything. I got stuck, however, once I reached the Amore Formaggi, which Bella Italia describes as ‘heart-shaped pasta parcels in a basil pesto sauce’, along with semi-dried Pachino tomatoes. I’m a sucker for filled pasta at the best of times and this dish was mouth-wateringly good.

Pasta formaggiFinally, at Piccadilly we were treated to the renowned gelato I’d heard so much about. I suspect that a tour exploring the background of this wonderfully sweet dessert wasn’t an entirely accidental decision on the part of the organisers, giving us all time to anticipate the taste at the end of our culinary journey. Oh boy, it was worth waiting for – sweet, sharp and yet somehow delicate, crunching on the roof of my mouth like soft glass.

The gelato was accompanied by shots of Limoncello liqueur. As a man with a sweet tooth, Limoncello more or less embodies everything I like in a drink. It is, I soon discovered, easy to overlook the alcoholic strength of sweet liqueurs when they’re served alongside sweet desserts under the all-encompassing umbrella of ‘a hearty meal’. I was a little wobbly when I rose from the table to go home, with a box containing a Limoncello meringue pie under one arm (I have no shame when it comes to good food).

This guided dinner party was thoroughly engrossing and definitely the most fun I’ve ever had during a history lesson. The tour and the food complimented each other beautifully; the walking gave us time enough to prepare our stomachs for the next course, all the while learning about the off-beat history of this wonderful, culturally composite city.

As for Bella Italia, it’s refreshing to see a restaurant chain so attached and in-tune with the history and culture of its country of origin. We weren’t beaten down by promotional information about the restaurant itself, or bombarded with extended details about its history. It felt like the focus was on Italy; a celebration of both Italians overseas and here in Manchester. Bella was content to let its food do the talking.

LimoncelloI was pleased, too, to see my favourite aspect of Bella Italia remained intact. It’s one thing to dine in an establishment, another to feel welcome throughout the meal. Bella Italia has mastered what many restaurants aim for but few achieve – the ability to provide a thoroughly pleasant dining experience from start to finish.

The focus on the customer is evident in the menu and the manner. The waiters don’t rush you and, most importantly, they smile! You can enjoy the finest-tasting cuisine in the world but if the servers are rude or inattentive then the food counts for very little of your lasting impression. What I guess I’m trying to say is that, strangely enough, the food isn’t always everything.

In this case though, it was bloody good.

By Jack Stocker