Food: Pasta la Vista; Birmingham's Oldest Family-Run Italian Restaurant Is Entering a New Chapter in Its History. Lifestyle Editor ZOE CHAMBERLAIN Visits Valentino in Harborne to Discover How Eating Habits Have Changed in the Past 27 Years

Article excerpt


VALENTINO has gone full circle. When it first opened in 1976 customers generally didn't like pasta and wanted Anglicised Italian food and cheap 'plonk'.

But Maurizio and Barbara Guglia have spent the last 27 years introducing customers to Italian cuisine and wowing them with authentic regional dishes.

Now, as they are set to take early retirement, spending half the year in the south of France, they're passing their legacy on to their son, James, 25. He is just as enthusiastic and excited as they were all those years ago -and the food is now pure Italian.

'The day we opened it was pouring with rain and nobody came,' recalls Barbara, who's 50. 'We panicked, thinking there was no way we'd last a year, let alone 27!'

It wasn't long before the customers did come, but it wasn't necessarily Italian food they were after.

'People's ideas about Italian food were a bit eclectic to say the least,' says Maurizio, 55, who's Sicilian and has 11 brothers and sisters.

'Generally people had never heard of aubergines and had never seen food like tagliatelle verdi (green pasta). They thought it was mouldy! 'As a rule, English people didn't like pasta. They thought all Italians ate was pizza and pasta. They were concerned that the food would be too garlicky.

'They'd ask 'Do you ever eat steak or fish?'.

'Back then people were used to the typical Berni Inns and carvery restaurants so we had to westernise our dishes a little to suit their tastes. 'We served a lot of beef carved at the table, spaghetti bolognese, carbonara, lasagne and flambe, which was very popular at the time.

'In the 1970s many people in Birmingham went on their holidays to Spain because of the boom in package holidays.

'Holidaymakers rarely went to Italy. Even today it's not easy to get flights to parts of Italy from Birmingham.

'Many customers saw the Mediterranean as just one type of cuisine, lumping Italian food in with French. It was never considered that there might be national differences, let alone regional dishes.

'As a result we served a lot of prawn cocktails, steak and even Black Forest gateau!

'Our decor back then was very different, too. It was fussy with little lamps on the walls, bench seats and carpets.

'We even had a little puppet logo because that's what people always associated with Italian restaurants!

'Harborne was a lovely little village then.

There were upmarket dress shops, an ironmonger's, a plumber's and a delicatessen.'

The Harborne couple, who met at the Strathallan Hotel in 1972, were keen to promote the fabulous cuisine they enjoyed back home so they made regular trips to Italy to stock up on dried essentials.

They also began to serve dishes that weren't only truly Italian but were also regional specialities.

'There weren't too many pastas in the supermarket here and people had never even seen balsamic vinegar when we first brought it over,' says Maurizio.

'Many were horrified by the look of black pasta made with squid ink. We had a table at the front of the restaurant with all the pastas in their dried form so people could have an idea of what the dish might be like.

'We brought over a pasta maker, too, and ran daytime cookery demonstrations for Birmingham ladies to learn how to make pasta.

'We began to introduce regional dishes and move away from the Anglicised Italian food people were used to. By this time our customers trusted us and were willing to try out new dishes and ingredients. …