By Jo Cooksey
Way back at the beginning of this year, Taste Today embarked on a very exciting journey, as Brand Ambassadors for the very first English Italian Awards. The awards are already well established in Scotland and the team felt it was time to move South and give the English/Italian hospitality industry a shot at their own competition.
The idea behind the awards is to celebrate the contribution made by Italian communities across the country to the food and hospitality industry. The committee behind behind the awards comprises of Paramount Creative’s C.E.O. Warren Paul, Press & Events Manager Michael Macfarlane and Head of Business Development Mike Allen. They decided that Manchester was the perfect city to host the inaugural English Italian Awards because of its burgeoning food scene.
Michael had contacted various North West food bloggers and journalists, including Taste Today. He wanted us to meet the team so they could explain the premise behind the awards and bring us on board to help promote them to a wider audience prior to the launch party last April.
In all there were to be fifteen categories to enter including Best Pizzeria, Most Romantic Restaurant and Best Team. Two of the categories, Best Chef and Best Pizza would be cook offs, held at the Cheshire Cookery School in Altrincham and judged by chef and restaurateur, Aldo Zilli. The Best Barista category was held at the headquarters of Italian coffee brand, Portioli.
I was asked to judge a category and in August found out that mine was to be Best Café. I would have just 6 weeks to visit all 10 finalists in locations between Newcastle Upon Tyne and Nantwich. I was to pose as an ordinary customer until the end of my visit when I was to reveal my true identity. To be honest it all sounded quite 007. I wondered if there was a Q who could fit me out with some cutting edge technology disguised as culinary items. A fork fitted with a steel cutting laser in case I got locked in a freezer? Perhaps some X-ray specs that would enable me to see what was going on in the kitchens? Well, you never know.
Actually, what I did have was a list of the finalists, their addresses and a sat nav to help me work out the best routes. I couldn’t do anything for the first couple of weeks as I had other commitments. I now had four weekends to cover 10 cafes and nearly 1000 miles. Gulp.
For the first foray into the unknown I roped in my best friend, Janie and booked us into a nice hotel in Harrogate, under the guise of a birthday treat, then one sunny Saturday we tootled off to Newcastle. We arrived at Pani’s at lunchtime and had a thoroughly marvellous time. So much so that I forgot to reveal to them who I was. It was my first time. After lunch we sped off towards Harrogate and our dinner date at Caffe Marconi. Again we had a lovely time and even managed to sample a little of the Harrogate nightlife before collapsing gratefully in to our beds. Following a huge breakfast the next morning, well it was included in the price, it was the turn of the Leeds Italian Café finalist. We were getting good at this now. We parked up and did a tour of shops in order to walk off our breakfast, (that’s our excuse anyway), before hitting La Bottega Milanese. One weekend and 3 venues down, 3 weekends and 7 venues to go. At this point I was seriously worrying about my waistline as all this delicious Italian fare was only go to add to it. Bread and water only during the week then.
The next weekend entailed visits nearer to home. My first port of call was Bellisimo Espresso Bar in Burnley. This family run business sits in the middle of Burnley’s main shopping street. The following day I was off to the Bianco Coffee Shop in Sale to sample their rather delightful homemade pizza whilst being serenaded by a local singer and her keyboard.
The finish line was in sight, only five more cafes to visit. The Roma Caffe & Deli in Whitefield was the next subject of my finely honed judge’s eye. They certainly passed muster. My remaining cafes were in Sheffield and Nantwich. Not exactly close to each other. I decided to tackle the ones on the other side of The Pennines first and the following Saturday morning I set off with another friend, Kath. The day before I had found out that one of the Sheffield venues had had to drop out so that left Caffe Massarella in Meadowhall Shopping Centre and Bragazzi’s nearer the centre of town.
I only had one venue left to visit, Enzo’s in Nantwich but the competition closed the following Friday and I wouldn’t be able to get there until the day after. I had to ask for an extension from the awards committee, as the awards ceremony was taking place the following night. Talk about cutting it fine. I sped off to the picturesque market town of Nantwich and had a really super visit. I was on my own and a table of three lovely ladies invited me to join them. We got on like a house on fire and they were terribly excited when I let them in on the secret of why I was there.
One of the aspects of this role that surprised me the most was people’s reactions when I revealed who I was. I was met with gasps of surprise, blank faces when staff hadn’t been told by the boss that they were entered, some rather choice language and in the case of Bellissimo in Burnley, huge hugs from Lynn, one half of the husband and wife team who own it.
The awards ceremony itself was a huge gala evening in the ballroom of The Palace Hotel in Manchester. We donned our best frocks and headed down there. There were hundreds of people mingling at the champagne reception and we bumped in to a lot of faces we had met on our judging journey. They were nervous and excited at what was to come that evening. We found our table number on the large chart before going down to the ballroom. Near our table, an ice cream stall had been set up so we treated ourselves to a couple of scoops pre- dinner.
At each place setting there were miniature bottles of Amaretto and Grappa, courtesy of two of the sponsors. Two DJ’s from Capital FM were hosting the evening and we were treated to entertainment from singers and a dance troupe. It was certainly a glittering affair. The awards started to be announced and I actually became quite nervous. Obviously, I knew who had won my section but that didn’t stop the butterflies. I found I was actually holding my breath when the runners up were announced. The teams from Pani’s in Newcastle and Roma Caffe & Deli in Whitefield dashed up to the stage to collect their trophies. Then it was time for the winners. Our table erupted when Bellissimo of Burnley was announced and we clapped them up to the stage. Giovanni looked stunned and Lynn just burst in tears. This award clearly meant the world to them and I was soon dabbing my own eyes with a napkin.
This was what the awards were all about, celebrating the huge contribution that the Italians make to our food and hospitality industry. Roll on 2016, it promises to be bigger and better than this year, if that is possible.
Aniello Russo - Angelo's (Sunderland)
David Davenport - Enzo's (Nantwich)
Il Forno (Liverpool)
Bellissimo Espresso Bar (Burnley)
BEST RESTAURANT OVER 50 SEATS
BEST RESTAURANT UNDER 50 SEATS
La Locanda di Gisburn (Clitheroe)
Don Giovanni's (Manchester)
BEST WINE LIST
Ipsum Vinoteca (Leeds)
Cucina Seventy Three (Lancashire)
Gigi's Cucina (Sheffield)
BEST MULTI OPERATOR
PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARD