Priest Stranglers and Little Sparrows are not quite the odd bedfellows they sound. Both find common ground in the North Italian city of Trento (above), glorious gateway to the Dolomites. The Trentino has always been wrangled over by Italy and Austria; reaching its blood-stained apogee during the Great War. Witness the trenches and obsolete weaponry that still litter the mountain ridges.
A benevolent legacy, though, is the intermingling of Germanic and Italian Alpine cuisines. That’s why you’ll find Strangolapreti (stranglers) and Spätzle (sparrows) sharing equal billing on the menus. The former, also known Strozzapreti, are usually a twisty pasta made up of just flour water and salt – but no eggs. Legend has it these were taken by the Church as tithes, leaving the peasants to fulminate against ‘priest-chokers’ or ‘priest-stranglers’ in anti-clerical hotbeds such as Emilia Romagna. Or maybe it’s just a reference to how you shape them by hand.
Up in Trento my Strangolapreti turned out to be a delicious local variant – spinach gnocchi. In truth, they weren’t a far remove from the Spätzle, noodles which do benefit from the presence of eggs. In the Swabian-German dialect the name translates as ‘little sparrows’, which they resemble in flight when shaped by a spoon in the traditional way.
From its South West German birthplace the dish has flown across all the Alpine regions, establishing itself everywhere and, most handily, is now nesting in a restaurant in Manchester, paying its own homage – The Spärrows.
Up on Red Bank chef/co-owner Franco Concli stays true to his own Trentino roots by making the Spätzle the traditional way, hand scraping them off the floury board and dropping them into simmering water. They are available both as savoury and, very apres ski, as a sweet, with cinammon, brown sugar and butter.
I like both the Spätzle and Gnocchi served simply with butter and sage (£7 for 110g), but on a recent visit chose the £9 version with guanciale (cured pork cheek), which was fabulously soothing. So too was a special of beetroot-tinctured agnoletti filled with ricotta and lemon.
Russian style pelmeni dumplings with beef/pork garlic breadcrumbs (£8.50) were less satisfying. I should have gone for the Polish pierogi, little dumplings filled with melted cottage cheese and potato with soured cream and sauerkraut, a favourite from The Spärrows’ early days in a small archway near Manchester’s Victoria Station.
Since then the drinks list has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of co-owner, Polish-born Kasia Hitchcock. It is as focused as the cool but cosy fit-out of a much larger arch space. A sake and spirits expert, she has been very canny with a wine list that majors in the very Alpine territory occupied by most of the food. Reds such as Lagrein, Teroldego and a Pinot Nero, are all there, from the Trentino/Alto Adige with their better known country cousin, Zweigelt from Austria. Its producer Sepp Moser also supplies the well-priced house white, a moreish Gruner Veltliner (the thinking person’s Sauvignon Blanc).
It all takes me back to Trento. I was in town for the annual Mostra dei Vini, the spring festival celebrating the wines of the Trentino region. After dark I mingled with the winemakers and was astonished at the variety of styles and local grape varieties used. Among the reds I liked the chunky Marzeminos, the more ethereal Pinot Neros and the flagship Teroldegos, with Muller-Thurgau outstanding among the whites. The delicate Nosiola, grown in a small corner of Trentino only, fared better as the base for the dessert wine Vino Santo (not Vin Santo, that’s Tuscan).
The jolly fest was held in the stunning Castello del Buonconsiglio. The original 13th century Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is in contrast to all the Renaissance add-ons in different styles erected to the glory of various Prince-Bishops who ruled here in the name of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Bernardio Clesio, the greatest of these, was responsible for its vast artistic treasure house, the Palazzo Magno. I liked the earlier Gothic-Venetian loggia.
The castle also houses a grim reminder of the bloody Italian campaign during the Great War – the dungeon that housed patriot martyr Cesare Battisti before he was hanged in the castle grounds. This was Austrian territory then and they regarded him as a traitor for fighting on the Italian side. A Battisti mausoleum tops a hill outside Trento. As I write this piece on our own Remembrance Day I’ve opened a bottle of Teroldego to salute the fallen on a front that most Britons have never heard of.
The Spärrows, 16 Red Bank (Green Quarter), Manchester, M4 4HF. 0161 302 6267. Word of warning: access is via a plain door with minimal signage.