For Alex and Mike De Martiis, brothers and founders of Sud Pasta, running a restaurant is a bit more than just running a restaurant (it’s actually running four, but that’s not the point).
It’s their connection to family, to the past, to the present and the future. “Even the tables are a reminder of what my Zia Lucia’s table looked like,” says Alex, in their restaurant off Cutting Room Square in Ancoats (‘zia’ being Italian for ‘aunt’).
One of their family’s most important matriarchs, she passed away only last year. But her legacy still looms large.
“If you asked me if there’s one table in the world I would like to go to eat at tonight, it would be hers,” he goes on.
“She was really old school. The life and vibrancy and passion she brought to everything, we hope, is here. Homely cooking.
“She knew what she was doing, like it was all completely natural to her. She could strip down a rabbit and make it taste amazing in no time at all. Nothing was forced. It was in her, and it came from her mum before her.”
Food and their childhood was indivisible. When their Nonna would come from Italy to stay and help look after them, it meant that they’d be in for a treat.
“I’d go to school with a packed lunch, and the other kids would have a ham sandwich and a packet of Walker’s. I’d have a fresh ciabatta, frittata, all these elaborate things,” says Alex.
“I was probably a bit embarrassed at the time, but looking back, it was incredible! They were the best packed lunches you could ever imagine.”
The brothers opened their first restaurant, opposite the market in Altrincham, in 2015, a reaction to what they saw as the ‘vanilla’ Italian food offering in Manchester at the time. “We just thought, ‘we can’t get a really decent plate of pasta anywhere’,” Mike says.
They now have outposts in Ancoats, Sale and another recently opened counter at the Exhibition food hall on Peter Street.
The idea was to bring their southern Italian heritage together to bring us the food of their childhoods, and of those formative visits back to Basilicata, in the south sandwiched between Puglia and Calabria, the instep of Italy’s heel.
Neither had run restaurants before, so it was a bit of a leap of faith. Alex was still studying, and Mike was working overseas.
“I’d be lying if I said, ‘this plate is exactly the way my nonna used to make it’,” says Alex. “But the feeling is there. The freshness of the ingredients. Orecchiette immediately makes me think of her, because she would make it for us.
After nearly eight years of devising recipes, opening restaurants and developing a huge following – they have over 40,000 followers on Instagram – they’ve upended their menu to adapt and change with the times.
They’ve introduced a 12 plate menu – they’re slightly smaller dishes, rather than the huge nonna portions they’ve been known for, meaning you can order a few and get a widescreen view of the menu.
“So with the house sugo, once you’ve eaten most of the dish, you’ve had that flavour,” says Mike. “The idea is you order two or three plates, and you get to enjoy more flavours.”
Fans of the house sugo – their eight-hour braised meat sauce with beef shin, pork shoulder and n’duja – should fear not, however. It’s still on the menu, just a smaller iteration, and a bit cheaper.
Nonna Angela’s orecchiette is still there too, with proper San Marzano tomatoes, basil, ricotta and stracciatella cheese.
But there’s also calamarata allo scoglio, with brown crab, cod cheeks, squid, mussels, tiger prawns, datterini plum tomatoes and ginger; a daft amount of seafood, really.
Meanwhile, the cavatelli, tiny rolled pasta shells, are served up with Sicilian chickpeas, cavalo nero, almonds and mint, with a hint of added sweetness from raisins. There’s nowhere else in the city serving up anything like this dish. It’s unique.
But the work never stops. Monday is Alex’s favourite day of the week. The restaurants are closed for the day, and with exec chef Tony, they head into one of the restaurants and work on ideas for the day, to make sure that the menu is always moving.
“We just wanted to open in Alti with the idea of making nice food, and hoping people would enjoy it,” says Alex.
“We didn’t even set out to do it. It was just about developing an identity. We didn’t have grand plans, not at all!”