When I think of Italian food, I’m met with images of pizza and luxurious pasta. While carbs and melted mozzarella make me salivate, I’m occasionally conscious of the need to eat a little lighter (which is usually around the time I can no longer fit in my jeans).
The concept of ‘lighter bites’ goes hand-in-hand with dieting or opting for a wilted salad rather than fries. But the new Spring/Summer menu at Gusto begs to differ. Packed full of tasty courses which don’t skimp on flavour, it’s a great treat for the – hopefully – warmer months.
Gusto is a hidden gem. Situated in Elliot House, a listed building, the entrance is on Lloyd Street just off Manchester’s Deansgate. The interior is upmarket: think 1920s style cocktail bar complete with dark wood and tiling, and lots of low-lighting.
“Those green tiles would look fab in your kitchen,” I whisper to Housemate as we’re shown through the restaurant to the bar. I imagine sitting at one of the stools in a flapper dress and some sort of feathered headpiece, ordering a martini. Instead, I’m here in a leopard print dress with a hole in the toe of my tights, and I order a tasty Malbec.
We’re here to sample Gusto’s new menu so the invited guests are all seated round a big table. Luckily, I can still make out the open-kitchen from where I’m seated so I get to watch the waiters whizz out from the pass and through the restaurant. There’s something about being seated in an Italian eatery watching the pizza oven and listening to the chef bark orders that I enjoy. I feel like I am holidaying in Sorrento or Rome, rather than having my tea in Manchester city centre. Even for a week night, Gusto has a buzz.
We start by chatting over the grande board, chock-full of prosciutto, salami, focaccia, goat’s cheese and dolcelatte. I snaffle some of the creamy cheese while Housemate assures me, as she pops a piece of cured meat into her mouth, that the ham is tasty.
As the waiter tops up our wine glasses (what is it about cheese that makes wine so moreish?) we give our orders. I opt for the fondue board which comes with celery, carrot and artisan bread for dipping, and Housemate picks deep fried toma cheese (which look a bit like fish fingers). The fondue is like cheese soup (served in a small pan), but is tasty with a hint of truffle. I’d never have veggie crudités with cheese, and I try to convince myself that it does not cancel out the healthiness.
Next is the main event. I choose seared lemon and pepper tuna steak with olives and asparagus. Housemate decides on garganelli primavera, a pasta dish with pine nuts and spring vegetables. It’s supposed to come with chicken but our waiter forgot to ask, so it’s served as a veggie dish. Not that Housemate minds and it means I get to try some.
“I would never think to put carrot in a pasta dish,” Housemate says. “But it works.”
Tinned tuna looks – and smells – like cat food, and I can’t bear to have it anywhere near me. But I love fresh tuna – it’s the pescetarian equivalent of a good piece of beef, and mine is perfectly cooked. It’s light and pink and doesn’t leave me feeling too full. Naturally, I ruin this by filling my face with the excellent selection of sides – a parmesan and rocket salad, roast new potatoes, and truffle fries – until I am stuffed.
But there is always room for pudding. I like my coffee strong, without milk and not sweetened, so I often dislike it in a dessert. However, the tiramisu is light and just the right amount of sugar cuts through the coffee. I wolf it down in seconds.
My only issue with the menu, and I never thought I’d hear myself utter these words, is that it’s a little cheese-heavy. Not great for vegans or those who are dairy-free. For them it lacks variety and I think Gusto is missing a trick by not being more inclusive of dietary requirements. But it is perfect for me and Housemate as, given the chance, we’d eat cheese for every meal.
“Is it wrong if I order fried Tomo cheese to begin and end with the cheeseboard?” Housemate ponders.
“I feel like book-ending your pasta dish with cheese would be a mistake,” I reply apologetically, so she orders panna cotta instead (which comes with a delicious balsamic sauce). “You have to factor in the walk to the train station.”
I wonder if Gusto may be more appealing during the winter months. I can imagine clutching a glass of red and feasting on pasta on a cold November night. But I do think passing up Gusto as a sunny day choice is a mistake. The food is flavoursome, fresh and fascinating, and the chic, hidden restaurant offers sanctuary in a city where a bit of sun is sure to prompt people to eat out.