My first experience of Manteca was in September 2019 at 10 Heddon Street, Mayfair – former home to the sadly-missed Magpie and now a short-term residency space currently occupied by Budgie Montoya’s Sarap Bistro.
Perhaps best described as contemporary Italian with a British accent, Manteca is buzzy and bright, with cream brickwork, pared-back pale wooden furniture, huge windows and an open kitchen that is pure theatre. A collaboration between David Carter of Smokestak and Chris Leach, formerly of Kitty Fisher’s, Pitt Cue and Petersham Nurseries, it has finally found a permanent home in Shoreditch. ‘Nose to tail, no waste’ isn’t a trendy marketing strapline here, it’s Manteca’s whole ethos. From the pig’s head sign hanging outside the restaurant to whole animal butchery, house-made salumi and the skilful, uncompromising use of skin and fat as focal points of a dish, there can be no mistaking their commitment.
The menu reads like a list of your favourite band’s greatest hits, some old and some new, presenting you with an almost impossible choice. I went twice in two weeks and still haven’t made it to a main course. That said, the house-made mortadella is an absolute must; a generously draped plateful of soft, thinly-sliced mortadella, smooth and delicate in texture but subtly complex in flavour, served alongside thick slices of oven-fresh focaccia drizzled with olive oil and finished with a scattering of sea salt. It’s a beguiling start, and considering the amount of work that has gone into the dish, an absolute steal at £6.50.
It’s the kind of place where you leave having already mentally ticked off your next meal on the menu
Another crowd-pleaser was the pig head fritti, crisply coated then meltingly rich and fatty in absolutely the best way, served with an apple mostarda. Mostarda is an Italian condiment made from cooked fruit in a mustard-spiced syrup, similar to chutney but with a mustard kick; the combination of sweet/sour apple and sinus-clearing heat cut through the richness of the pork, adding a welcome balance to the dish.
The wine list offers both ‘a classic choice’ and the more adventurous low-intervention ‘down the rabbit hole.’ There is a good choice for less than £40 a bottle and a decent selection by the glass or carafe, including their wine on tap (starting at £5.00 for 125ml) so you can create your own wine pairing.
I was praying that the brown crab cacio e pepe had survived Manteca’s journey from Mayfair through Soho and on to Shoreditch. It had, and seeing it on the menu was like greeting an old friend. I risk being cancelled by every pasta purist and native Roman on social media but the fact remains; about the only conceivable way cacio e pepe could get any better is by some visionary putting sweet, rich umami-laden crab through it. This is pure flavour, with the volume cranked right up. Heartfelt thanks to the discreetly vigilant front of house team, one of whom placed a small bowl of torn focaccia on my table to mop up the remaining sauce.
In Manteca’s Heddon Street days the menu included a refreshing fennel salad spiked with chilli which I remember ordering as a counterpoint to the crab pasta. Fast forward to the winter 2022 version, puntarelle alla romana: Italian bitter leaves with anchovy, chilli, garlic and red wine vinegar. In a recent interview for Palate, I asked Nick Gibson of The Drapers Arms to name three memorable dishes he had eaten recently and Manteca’s puntarelle was his first answer. It’s an extraordinary dish, so much more than the sum of its parts, the heavyweight flavours perfectly balanced. From the first mouthful, it’s like hitting the jackpot on a Vegas slot machine; everything in the food part of your brain lights up.
When taglierini with a generous shaving of black winter truffle is the most delicate dish on the menu you know you are in the presence of some bold and powerful flavours. But my final pasta dish was perhaps Manteca’s biggest flavour bomb of all: fazzoletti with duck ragu and duck fat pangrattato. Literally translated as ‘grated bread’, pangrattato is made by frying breadcrumbs with garlic, rosemary or lemon and is used to top pasta. It is also known as ‘poor man’s Parmesan’ as it is a quick and delicious way to use up stale bread. Cooking it in duck fat and using it to top an already rich and meaty duck ragu should be overload, but it’s somehow not; instead, it adds not only texture but yet another different layer of flavour. If this is on the menu when you visit, please don’t miss it.
I would put Manteca in my top five restaurants in London for pasta right now, which makes the affordable pricing even more remarkable. It’s the kind of place where you leave having already mentally ticked off your next meal on the menu; no wonder it can be tricky to get a table.
49-51 Curtain Road
by Amanda David