So this is the first in what will hopefully become a regular feature, where we sit down for a coffee or a glass of wine with someone from the hospitality industry and have a chat about how they ended up where they are and what they love about food and drink.
We love to give a little nod to our local friends in the North West, and who better to kick us off than the great Sugo Pasta Kitchen?
It’s always a privilege to chat food and drink with Alex and any of the team at Sugo. We’ve been helping them out with their wine list for many years now and their passion for what they do is truly infectious.
The business is quite simple - to be the best southern Italian pasta kitchen in the country - and you’d be hard pressed to find better. Alex and his brother Mike have been on that mission since their first opening in Altrincham back in 2015. They've now grown the business to have three sites in Manchester, with Ancoats following in 2018 and Sale opening in April this year to make it three. Their customers are fiercely loyal. You only have to search #ForzaSugo on Instagram to be hit by hundreds of photos of delicious looking pasta from their restaurants.
Alex de Martis with some of Sugo's greatest hits
We start off chatting about the loose format of the conversation and get going with some of Alex’s early food memories.
I ask if the love of food comes from his parents, to which the answer is ‘definitely not my mum’. Growing up between his English mother’s home in Manchester and his Italian father down in Brighton, there was a stark contrast in the food he enjoyed: ‘It really was chalk and cheese, with chips and beans when staying with my mum then going down to see my staunchly Italian dad who had always been involved in cooking and restaurants’. Talking about his Nonna coming over from Italy to stay at his Dad’s, Alex reminisces ‘she was classic southern Italian - she wouldn’t just be coming over for a week, it was more like, “Right. 1994. I’m coming for that year!’.I think it’s fair to say she was one of Alex’s biggest food influences. He loved taking his lunchbox to school with focaccia and zucchini frittata instead of the usual ham sandwiches.
House Sugo - Sugo's signature orecchiette dish
As he got older, him and his brother Mike would regularly travel over to Southern Italy for the whole of August to see the family and just eat everything. Rustic dishes like rabbit and fish on the bone, just whatever the local cuisine was. ‘Typically the north of Italy had the money and the south didn’t, so they had to make the land work and really get everything they could from it. Don’t be sending your Nonna back a plate with a bit of fat left on the bone – eat it!’ This ethos of using everything and not just prime cuts really comes through in the cooking in the restaurant and very much pays homage to that southern Italian heritage.
Nonna really was the family food hero, along with his Zia (Aunt) and just the simple things - fresh Pomodoro made from the best local tomatoes and great olive oil. This rustic style of food and drink is what Alex enjoys. Real heart and soul places, which is exactly how Sugo makes you feel.
Alex's Dad, Zia and Nonna
We go on to talk a little about how the business is run. Alex explains that it’s him and group Head Chef Tony who develop the food menu, whilst Alex also works with Ops Manager Jay on the wine lists. Brother Mike looks after all things FoH alongside Jay. Speaking about his brother, he says ‘we’re really lucky in that we’re brothers who both bring different things to the table, trust each other implicitly and have a lot of respect for each other’s decisions’.Alex talks about social media and how it would probably take about an hour for him to write a post and that he would be constantly worried about what to put out, to the point he’d probably end up saying nothing important at all. This explains why it’s left to Mike, who’s able to portray a real personality across the socials and has definitely built up a cult following on Instagram for the restaurants.
When it comes to wine, it’s clear that growing up in Italy the culture around drinking is just so different to what we traditionally have here in the UK. Alex mentions how as young as 10 years old, he was encouraged to have a small glass with dinner. It was never for the purpose of getting leg-less - it was communal, always drinking and eating and having a good time.
When we talk about the wines of southern Italy and the wines Reserve are able to source for Sugo, Alex explains that ‘there’s basically 3 options: Primitivo, Negroamaro and maybe a chilled Primitivo as well. For us to tap into a bit of that in our restaurants with the house wines is really good.’ With a belting Primitivo and a ripe, fruity, Greco/Fiano white blend - both from Puglia and both served from kegs - it feels like we’re one step closer to that real authentic southern Italian pasta kitchen in the wine offering as well as the food.
Wines are served by the keg for a more rustic feel
The natural wine section is a new addition to the menu and Alex is 100% a convert. ‘I really enjoy the range that we have. The orange in particular works really well for us and having this section on the list gives added interest for the customers which is great’. The Calcarius wines have a white, red and orange which are all served chilled, sitting alongside a Col Fondo sparkling wine to complete the offering of natty wines. But this range is open to change, with the wine list being reviewed every 6 months and regular specials on the drinks menu, from classic Italian Spritz to Lambrusco.
Some of the natural wines on offer
Arguably the star of the show here though is the pasta. Sourced from Puglia, this is proper authentic fresh pasta, made the southern way with just flour, water and salt from a local Pastificio near where Alex’s family are from. ‘These are real pillars of the community, often with buckets of pasta out the front where families go and get theirs for the week. These Pastificio (pasta factories) supply the locals and the restaurants and some have their own restaurant attached as well. We’d love to have our own Pastificio here and maybe one day we’ll make it happen, but for the time being it just isn’t practical and the quality we get from Puglia really is the best possible product, which is what we’re all about’.
When it comes to menu development, Alex and Head Chef Tony love to get creative. ‘Every Monday when the restaurants are closed we go in together and cook, bring in some ingredients, play with different flavours and ideas. We both bring different things to the table and really trust each other’s ideas and tastes. So it’s always fun and Monday tends to be my favourite day of the week. We aren’t trying to recreate my Nonna’s or anyone else’s recipes, but what we do want to do is replicate that heart and soul which goes into the cooking, adding our own twist and keeping it rooted in Southern Italy.’
Alex and Tony planning in the kitchen
On plans for the future, Alex is coy. Sale is now open after an incredibly successful crowd-funder and it’s always easy to think ‘right, well what’s next?’. ‘Sale is perfect because it hasn’t really changed us in any way. It’s just a natural extension of the two existing restaurants. We treat the 3 sites as one big restaurant and opening Sale has basically just made us better at what we do.’He’s clear on one thing though. Whatever happens next, they’re committed to remaining independent and continuing to strive for excellence in every aspect of the business, from the people to the food and the drink.
The menu rotates with seasonal specials
As we draw the conversation to a close, I ask Alex the million dollar question. If he was stranded on a desert island with one dish and one wine forever, what would he choose? ‘It’s a really tough one. I mean I’d probably have to say Primitivo or I’m getting murdered at home. Food-wise, Guanciale (cured pork cheek) would be up there with a white wine sauce, tomato and chilli. But if I can have anything, I’d want to be at a big table with my Zia just bringing out course after course of her cooking. Some pasta, grilled fish, the works.’
It’s definitely cheating, but it sounds fantastic.
- Michael Stanton, Reserve Wines