San Carlo, on Temple Street, has been a staple of the Birmingham dining scene since the early nineties and is a favourite of, perhaps, the more affluent and older crowd. Its new next door neighbour, Fumo Restaurant, is younger and cooler but is also part of the growing San Carlo empire. Just around the corner from San Carlo, on St. Phillip’s square, the restaurant is light and warm with the atmosphere of a Tuscan restaurant where everything is lovely but just a little bit chaotic.
Their specialty is cicchetti, Italian (Venetian) Tapas. Once ordered the food arrives when it’s cooked, so if you don’t like that style of tapas dining, it’s not for you. There are dozens and dozens of reasonably priced dishes on the menu which are best shared between friends. Lovelies include: Duck salad, gamborini (giant prawns), spaghetti bolognaise, risotto, a super Tuna Tartare and many more. The Tuna Tartare is made at the table by the server: a plate arrives with arranged ingredients, they are explained to the diner, then mixed together expertly, then re-presented beautifully. My advice is to go for a couple or three plates each to start, and order more if you’re still hungry – some of the dishes are much bigger than others but that’s reflected in the price. I had no criticism of the food, it was all just delicious. A friend thought it could have been hotter, but I find that to be a very personal taste, I actually don’t like things too hot.
When six of us arrived for Saturday lunch it was a bit of a squeeze fitting us in, not helped because they have quite a few small round tables which in my opinion are not useful in any restaurant catering for groups of more than four. If an oblong table was good enough for the Last Supper, it’s good enough for me. We had two square tables and a round table kludged together. It did the job I suppose, but there was too much faffing to get us in as we hovered while our table was being put together, and I suspected that was the start of some underwhelming service. It perhaps would have been better for them to have sent us to their lovely looking bar for a drink while they sorted our seating out.
The bar looks like something out of a plush London hotel and it’s worthy of the drinks it produces. We tried Rossinis (prosecco and strawberry juice), some other prosecco cocktails, a Vesper Martini, and I had a Spritz Aperol. Spritz Aperol seemed to be the drink of the moment when we were in Italy in the summer so it’s no surprise that a few bars here have started to serve them (notably here and Aalto @ Hotel La Tour). Aperol is a very bitter spirit, bright orange, and is mixed with prosecco or cava to make a “Spritz” (pronounced in Italiant as spreeetze). Aperol is a bit like Campari but has a nicer flavour in my opinion (less dead-beetle, more sun-in-a-glass). In Italy they were served to the ladies in wine glasses and to gents in tumblers, despite my two requests for a tumbler mine ended up in a wine glass. They also have a good selection of Italian beers and wines.
The service was perhaps a little underdone for me. I don’t want to be constantly bothered but I also don’t want to sit without a drink for 20 minutes. I wonder perhaps whether they’re understaffed or that they’ve got busy so quickly that they didn’t realise how many staff they need. If it’s the latter then I think that’s a nice problem for them to have. Nonetheless – better service next time is required.
I’ll definitely be back to this stylish tasty venue. There are lots more plates of zingy food to try, wine and cocktails to be drunk, and laughter to be had. It’s a lovely unfussy place to go as a group of friends to have a loud and typically joyful Italian dining experience. Give it a go on a miserable and rainy Saturday lunch, it’ll cheer you right up.