You thought Little Italy was a neighbourhood in Manhattan; think again, my little tesoro. Slip into a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti sling-backs and strut on over to Gustum. Head up the stairs by ‘Porta’ on Northgate Street, arrive on the walls, then swing a right, and you’ll find a small and perfectly formed Italian eatery serving a selection of ciabatta, sandwiches, gelato, coffee and daily changing specials. The interior’s black and white theme is considered and stylish, with local artists’ photography adorning the walls. This venue feels bright, deceptively spacious and very relaxing.
Gustum, a name with Latin origins meaning ‘to enjoy a late snack’, open their doors daily from 10 am, and your host, Marco, will greet you with the warm bonhomous of a favourite uncle. Marco has been in Chester 20 years and has hospitality coursing through his veins. Chewing the fat with him for a just a couple of minutes will remind you why we must support our independent food houses. His business is your lunch, and it means everything to him. He hasn’t reinvented the wheel here; the offer is straightforward and beautiful, concise and honest. All his ciabatta and sandwiches have Latin names as a nod to both his heritage and that of the city.
We’ve all enjoyed Italian food before, but this is like getting into bed in the dark, feeling the familiarity of a warm body, then turning on the bedside lamp, only to discover that you’re in fact next door, in bed with your hot new neighbour. Ingredients are treated with reverential respect, irrespective of their modesty, with time-consuming passion and love, and you can taste it in every sybaritic mouthful. Gustum was nearly full when I arrived this morning. A mingle of tourists and loyal repeat customers, all blinkered in the occupation of their pistachio cannoli or any one of 16 different varieties of ciabatta or sandwich. The service is attentive and never rushed, and there’s a pleasant babel of chatter that fires a desire in you to procrastinate over your plans for the rest of the day.
I enjoyed a trademark coloured latte, and Marco indulged me with a sneak preview of his green olive pate, produced with olives from his family grove. He served this with ciabatta, seasoned with just the right amount of sea salt. It’s the perfect brunch kickstart for somebody who too frequently skips breakfast, without being so weighty that you fear, when returning to the office, that you’ll face plant your desk as a consequence of food-induced narcolepsy. We all know that men in white coats with cold hands and stethoscopes have been reputing the health benefits of olive oil for some time. The fact is that nothing that tastes this delicious should be good for you, and yet it is. His cold pressed, Denominazione di Origine Protetta (“Protected Designation of Origin”) extra virgin olive oil, again born from Marco’s olive grove, is bursting with herbaceous fruity notes, just the right amount of nuttiness and leaves a subtle peppery finish. Enjoy a 0.5l bottle for just £19.00.
There’s no boozy option here, and it doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything in its absence. Besides, you’ll be so drunk on Marco’s contagious passion; you’ll finish up your ‘Herbas’ – a sandwich of griddled courgette, chilli pesto and brie (£3.90), and you’ll immediately purchase a Vespa and a second home in Sicily.
Sunday 1st October once again sees ‘International Coffee Day’ arrive in our calendars, with its pupils fully dilated. Personally, I celebrate ‘International Coffee Day’, every day, perhaps with the notable exception of a well-known American chain of coffee house who write your name in Sanskrit on the side of your cup. Not because I’m a snob, I’d just rather not take out a short-term loan to pay for their version of a large cappuccino, only to be served a piping hot cup of dirty puddle water that tastes like my nana’s gravy browning. Americans are to coffee, what Donald Trump is to international diplomacy. Italians know coffee. I want a coffee that sends me into a caffeine frenzy that prohibits me from operating large machinery or playing with kittens. It comes as standard in a Gustum espresso, and without selling your corneas on the black market to fund it.
So if you’re tired of eating in formulaic chain restaurants that purport to serve authentic Italian grub, while they hoodwink you with over-boiled, flabby knitting spaghetti or chicken that should be popped in an Uber and sent to a garden of remembrance to meet a compassionate priest, then leave them behind. Have lunch at Gustum, tell your boss that you’re taking the rest of the day off to channel your inner Luchino Visconti, then head home to the couch and watch Death In Venice in your pants. Trust me, “conosco i miei polli.”