“I remember the Premiership trophy being sat in front of the pizza oven...” - Why footballers, celebrities and food lovers have flocked to San Carlo

By Manchester's Finest | 28 May 2024

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Few restaurants in Manchester have the pedigree of the original San Carlo, the most storied of Italians, hidden behind the bustle of Deansgate and the often overlooked modernist design of what most Mancs still call Kendals.

At one time, in fact, San Carlo’s founder Carlo DiStefano, cut hair in that very department store’s own barber’s shop. He’d arrived in the UK just a few years before, in 1962, with £12 in his pocket and some big plans.

“It was very humble beginnings,” Carlo’s son Marcello, now the restaurant group’s MD, says. “My father left Sicily post-war, but it was a poor area. My grandfather was a roofer, and would go village to village fixing roofs, my grandmother was a housewife.

“They didn’t really have anything, but they looked to England as this place where dreams could come true, and you could make something of yourself. So he came over here and started working in barber shops.”

Barbering may have been his trade, but restaurants were Carlo’s passion and he spent every spare penny travelling to London and dining at the likes of Simpsons in the Strand and The Savoy, enthralled by their style and old fashioned elegance.

But despite having adopted San Carlo as our own, Carlo’s first restaurant opened on Temple Street in Birmingham in 1992, followed by Bristol and Leicester, before the Manchester restaurant opened its doors in 2002.

“I remember my father’s original executive chef Bruno, he’s no longer with us, but I remember him coming to our house in 1992 to cook for us, to showcase the menu for the first San Carlo restaurant,” says Marcello. “There are still dishes – like the tortellini panna e prosciutto – that he cooked for us then that are still on the menu.

“If you went and found a menu from back then, you’d find that maybe 60% is still the same, but then over the years different executive chefs have put on their own stamp. There’s a always a point where a dish has stuck, and then it stays on the menu.”

“My favourite will always be the Veal Milanese, my go-to classic dish,” he goes on. “That, and spaghetti pomodoro. People might say it’s boring, but when it’s done well, with the right tomatoes, for me it’s one of the best dishes you can eat.”

More than any other restaurant perhaps in Manchester, San Carlo has had more than its share of brushes with celebrity. 

Rihanna San Carlo

Rihanna tweeted while eating with friends in their private room last year, and it quickly went viral. 200 fans mobbed the front door when Hulk Hogan turned up for dinner in the 90s, causing in impromptu roadblock. 

Russell Crowe only just managed to get a table during one of the busiest nights of the year, the same night Ricky Hatton was fighting Russian-Australian boxer Kostya Tszyu in 2005.

“The only problem was, a few days later in New York, he threw a phone at someone,” Marcello laughs. “Wish he’d done that here, we’d have got more news headlines!”

Liza Minelli, Liam and Noel, Andrea Bocelli, Sir Tom Jones, Lionel Richie. Footballers too, red and blue (but mostly red) have flocked to the place. Mourihno, Cantona, Beckham, Sir Alex Ferguson, all regulars. But one night in particular took the tiramisu.

“It was Ronaldo’s last season, the original time he was at United,” says Marcello. “Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs were in during the week, and it was the penultimate game of the season. They said that if they win the game on Saturday, they’d won the league, so could they come in.

Carlo Distefano Marcello Distefano
Carlo and Marcello Distefano

“The day came, and it was packed in here anyway, there was a Girl’s Aloud concert on. United won the game, and they won the league. It was Gary or Ryan that called me, and said ‘we’re coming down’. I said ‘how many, and who exactly?’ And he said ‘oh, the whole team’. 

“The team bus arrived outside, with the trophy, and I think for the next three hours, we lost control of the restaurant. But no one cared, it was just great to be part of it. I’ll always remember them putting the Premiership trophy in front of the pizza oven.”

You don’t keep a restaurant going on celebrity visits alone.

“These are all great things, and they’re great stories, but the reasons we’ve been successful are not because of the celebrity, the reason why, I think, we’ve been successful is that we’ve always been a family orientated restaurant,” says Marcello. 

Under Marcello, the brand has expanded to eight sites in Manchester and Greater Manchester, another eight in London, three in Birmingham, two in Leeds and internationally too, with outposts in far-flung places like Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai and Bangkok, with another coming soon in Miami.

But while it wasn’t the first, the King Street West restaurant is still considered the ‘flagship’.

“We’ve tried to make a restaurant that feels comfortable, and that anyone can feel comfortable coming into and enjoy themselves,” says Marcello.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money, we’re good value and that’s what’s kept us going for 20 years, and why we’re still busy. Look around the room, there are all walks of life. And that’s the most important thing.”