If one neighbourhood could claim to be “Glasgow’s Little Italy” the Merchant City would surely be the top contender. The stylish area slightly east of the city centre is home to a number of Italian restaurants, most of whom are owned by Italian families.
It’s a testament to the popularity of the cuisine in Glasgow that despite the number of Italian restaurants in the Merchant City, you will find them all busy on any day of the week.
Scots Italian influence
With waves of Italian immigrants arriving in Scotland since the 19th century, Italian culture has always had a strong influence in our country and no better is this exemplified than with food. The ubiquitous fish and chip shops which can still be found in most Scottish towns were introduced by the Italians from 1890 onwards, along with as ice cream cafes.
From those foundations many business formed the traditional Italian restaurants we now see across the country.
Qua & Piazza Italia
Paolo Martone, manager of Qua on Ingram Street, says this tradition is as well known in Italy as it is in Scotland.
He said: “Whenever I go back to my dad’s village and the locals realise I’m Scottish, all they want to talk about is fish and chips. Everyone in Italy associates Scotland with fish and chips.”
A second generation Italian, Paulo’s father Rocco arrived in Scotland from Cassino in the Lazio region almost 40 years ago and began his hospitality career as a waiter.
He went on to open a cafe in Glasgow’s East End where he met Paolo’s mother. Since then he has owned a number of Italian restaurants in Glasgow before opening Piazza Italia on John Street ten years ago then Qua three years later.
Throughout this time he has watched eager Glaswegians lap up his authentic Italian dishes.
Paulo said: “I think Italian food is so popular in Scotland because the portions are generous, the food is filling and there is something for everyone. The different regions in Italy were only unified 100 years ago so each region still has their own cooking style. There is a lot of variation.
“If I was to recommend one dish on our menu in Qua it would be the Penne Paesana which is penne with Italian sausage. We make the sausage in house using our own recipe of pork, cinnamon and fennel. It is authentic and unique.
‘For Piazza Italia, I’m always looking out to see what our fresh pasta dish of the day is. Spinach and ricotta ravioli is particularly delicious.”
Wander five minutes south and you’ll find yourself in the Saltmarket’s ESCA.
Open for fifteen years, it remains a firm favourite with 5pm diners.
General Manager Hayley Henderson explained why.
“Everyone just seems to love pizza and pasta but without a doubt our favourite Italian dish is Penne Alfredo which is penne with spicy chicken. It’s become a running joke – we sell hundreds and on a Saturday there is one in every single order!
“However, my own personal favourite on our menu is the meatballs. They are homemade and really really good.
“I think ESCA is so popular with 5pm diners because we really focus on the customer. We know a lot of them, we don’t have a huge turnover of staff so everyone knows everyone and there is a personal touch. Our menu doesn’t change drastically so customers know what they are getting.”
Fanelli’s is a popular family friendly Italian in Merchant Square that focuses on traditional Italian dishes with a Scottish twist.
Fiona Robertson, General Manager at Fanelli’s says:
“We like to make the most of the Italian and Scottish connections in our cooking. A good example of this is our Scottish Antipasti that uses local Scottish ingredients and produce in a traditional Italian dish. It’s a delicious dish of Venison Bresaola and green pepper, Venison salami and cured meats from Great Glen Game.”
Italian restaurants in the Merchant City benefit from their location in one of Glasgow’s most popular dining out areas.
Paolo said: “My father picked the location of Piazza Italia because it was in the Italian centre and at that time there was no Italian restaurants there. He also loved the outdoor seating area. When the location of Qua came up a few years later he decided to go for it as that particular part of the Merchant City was really up and coming.”
“I really like the Merchant City myself because it has a good energy about it. I live here as well as work here so I can never get away. But I do really enjoy it.”
She said: “Even though the restaurants in the Merchant City are technically competition, everyone is really friendly. I often pop over to the Tron and Trans Europe Cafe to ask I can borrow things and they do the same with us.”
“It’s a friendly and relaxed atmosphere – almost feels like a small village just out of the city centre. ”