Mild mannered Bob Amato knows a thing or two about pasta.
For years, he made kilos and kilos of the stuff every single day, working out of his tiny deli called Buonissimo, which is now the San Juan tapas restaurant on Beech Road in Chorlton.
It wasn’t supposed to be a deli. That bit kind of happened by accident.
“We just put up a sign, which said ‘fresh pasta’,” he shrugs. “If no one came through, it didn’t matter.”
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After his restaurant Basta Pasta on Piccadilly Gardens folded, Bob already had a side hustle supplying fresh pasta to restaurants all over town like The Lime Tree and the Est Est Est chain, as well as to burgeoning chefs like Paul Heathcote and Simon Rimmer.
So he really didn’t much mind if no one came in. But they did.
“People would come in to get pasta, and they’d say ‘Oh, have you got any parmesan?’ And so I started getting the parmesan in, and when you’ve got the parmesan, then they want the tomatoes. Then it’s the flour. Then we started making pasta sauces. So it all started from there.”
Now, with his name above the door, Bob and his partner Deloras (they were once married, but now co-run the business together) preside over Amato Food Products, on the Piccadilly trading estate. And let’s say things have moved on a bit from their days in that tiny shop.
When you wander into the cavernous Amato, you’ll often hear the hollering in Italian between Bob and his consigliere Carlo, and, surrounded by industrial sized bottles of extra virgin olive oil and palettes piled high with giant bags of pizza and pasta flour, you ‘ll feel a bit like you’ve been transported to the Mediterranean.
But the best part about this secret corner of the city is that anyone can come here. There’s no CostCo-style membership hoops to jump through, no card needed.
Once inside, Amato is an absolute wonderland for foodies.
Want the 00 flour for making proper pizza dough? They’ve got it. Want the fearsomely spicy Calabrian ‘nduja sausage? They’ve got it. Want pasta in every shape and size under the sun in bags the size of pillows?
Well, you get the idea.
The constant through it all, however, has always been the fresh pasta.
Bob even met Deloras through pasta, selling it to her at the restaurant she worked at in Lymm. When they had a child, she would be tucked away in a bouncy chair in the corner of the deli, surrounded by… yep, pasta.
“I don’t think we’d get away with that now,” he laughs.
It was perhaps all preordained. His mother would make fresh pasta at home, and the young Bob would help roll it out. His dad was in the business too.
Originally from the south of Italy, near Pompeii, Bob’s dad worked in a Jewish noodle factory in St Albans (the place where the BBC’s infamous April Fool’s day ‘ spaghetti tree hoax ‘ was made) after coming to the UK as a POW following the Second WorldWar.
So obviously, when Bob moved to Manchester to study food technology at the polytechnic, he became one of the first in the city to start making fresh pasta of his own.
Amato still makes a vast amount of pasta today – around 100kg per day – using the same beautiful vintage pasta rolling machine that he started the business with, although Bob has understandably stepped back from making it all himself.
As for pizza, everywhere from Croma to new kid on the block Ramona rely on the supply lines Bob and Deloras have direct to Italy, from the Caputo Blue pizza flour to the specialist San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the volcanic soil around Vesuvius, near where his family is from, to the fior de latte mozzarella.
The business grew rapidly, from the crime to a railway arch, and then another railway arch, and then another, before Bob and Deloras bought the warehouse space they now occupy, the former Arriva bus depot, in 2013.
From just the two of them, they now have 40 employees and 18 vans, delivering specialist produce all over the city and the North West.
And while the core of the business is Italian food, you can get everything else here too, from Thai curry pastes to frozen french fries.
“There’s always something new,” says Deloras. “Last year everyone wanted matcha powder, and we’re now getting asked for dashi, so then we have to go out and source it.”
Still, as for everyone – particularly for those supplying the restaurant business – it’s been a tough couple of years.
When ‘lockdown one’ hit, in March 2020, Amato lost 80% of its business overnight.
“It was like, ‘wow’,” says Bob. They both still look a little shell shocked.
This came on top of the gathering complications of Brexit, the severe ramifications of which were just beginning to crystallize in the months prior to the pandemic.
They thought they’d just have to close down, and they already had shipments of perishable food in transit from Italy which they couldn’t cancel and had no idea if they’d be able to sell it or not. They froze huge amounts of it, but didn’t know whether or not they’d be able to carry on.
So, in a bid to recover some of their losses, Deloras floated the idea of turning a large section of the warehouse’s reception area into a pop-up shop.
It’s still there two years later, rack shelves groaning with specialist produce to browse, from jars of truffle ragu to canolis to top-end wine vinegars (and, of course, fresh pasta).
“A lot of people who used to come to us back when we were a deli still come to us now for their kilo of parmesan cheese, and they haggle with us, and they still want that 10p discount,” laughs Deloras.
“And they’re sending their children to us now. It’s almost like a day out.”
Those regular customers – friends, really – also became a lifeline in lockdown, as essentials like pasta and flour disappeared from supermarket shelves, but were to be found in abundance at Amato.
“WhatsApp groups started appearing, and people started organizing street deliveries,” says Deloras.
“Word of mouth got out, and all of a sudden we were doing home deliveries. Then we started making up antipasti boxes. We’d be doing 70 or 80 of those every week. It really helped.”
Though most restaurants shut and furloughed their staff, green shoots soon began appearing as some of Amato’s clients began doing take-out and selling meal kits.
And as the lockdown measures eased, and restaurants began re-opening, so business to return.
But the specter of Brexit began to return with it.
Amato has lost European staff who decided to return home and has found that supply lines to Europe slower than ever, more expensive and tangled up with the bureaucratic red tape that Brexit campaigners insisted was one of the things we’d somehow be free of once we left the EU.
Bob, who still travels to Italy every six weeks or so, calls it a ‘perfect storm’.
“I cannot see why you would want to do this to the closest market that you trade with,” he says, baffled. “That you’ve traded with since 1974. And people forget, we needed Europe far more than they needed us at the time.”
They started the business in 1992, so they have only ever known the frictionless trade with the EU before Brexit.
“It made it so much easier to be in the European Union to import goods. We took it for granted. It was like dealing with someone in Scotland, or Wales. To be taken away from your closest partners, it’s the politics of madness,” he goes on.
“[The government] wanted to do this Brexit, and were forced to go ahead with it. They couldn’t stop the steam train, because otherwise it would have revealed their lies. They knew it was going to be bad.
“It was quite obvious that prices were always going to go up. There are now these massive abnormalities. Like every time we bring in a palette of goods, any palette, it costs us £100 extra, regardless. There’s customs clearance, there’s notification, and all the paperwork.
“Haulage has gone up. They can’t get the drivers, and the drivers that there are are demanding more pay. Ports are being blocked with containers because there aren’t enough drivers, so ships are then having to wait three days out at sea to be unloaded.
“That knocks on the cost of fuel, the cost of ships being inoperative, it all has an impact on everything. Covid has had an impact on Brexit. It’s made an already difficult situation much, much worse.”
The length of a shipment from Italy to the UK has now increased by six days, meaning that they struggle to be agile, and work with what restaurants need at any one time. And that’s without the cost of pretty much everything going up.
The challenges that have faced Bob, Deloras and their staff at Amato in the past two years would have been enough to make anyone think about throwing in the towel.
But as he shows you around his sprawling warehouse, with its vast array of produce, its almost comically giant walk-in freezers with huge icicles hanging from the ceiling, and the hive of activity that it is, busy with with forklifts, he’s clearly deeply proud of what they have built here.
“Yes, we are proud,” he says. “It’s not been at all easy. But yes, we’re very proud.”
You can find contact details and Amato’s product lists at its website.
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