Mild-mannered Bob Amato knows a thing or two about pasta.
For years he did pounds and pounds of stuff every day, working in his little grocery store called Buonissimo, which is now the San Juan tapas restaurant on Beech Road in Chorlton.
It wasn’t supposed to be a deli. It kind of happened by accident.
“We just put up a sign saying ‘fresh pasta’,” he shrugs. “If no one passed, it didn’t matter.”
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After his Basta Pasta restaurant on Piccadilly Gardens closed, Bob was already busy supplying fresh pasta to restaurants across the city like The Lime Tree and the East East chain, as well as up-and-coming chefs like Paul Heathcote and Simon Rimmer.
So he didn’t really mind that no one came in. But they did.
“People would come and get pasta and say, ‘Oh, do you have any parmesan?’ And so I started putting in the parmesan, and when you have the parmesan, then they want the tomatoes. Next is the flour. Then we started making pasta sauces. So it all started from there. »
Now, with his name over the door, Bob and his partner Deloras (they were once married, but now co-run the business together) run Amato Food Products, on the Piccadilly trading estate. And let’s just say things have moved on a bit since their days in that little shop.
As you stroll through the cavernous Amato, you’ll often hear the cries in Italian between Bob and his consiglier Carlo, and, surrounded by industrial-sized bottles of extra virgin olive oil and stacked pallets of giant bags of pizza and of pasta flour, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the Mediterranean.
But the best part about this secret corner of town is that anyone can come here. There are no CostCo-style membership hoops to jump through, no card needed.
Once inside, Amato is an absolute foodie’s paradise.
Do you want 00 flour to make a good pizza dough? They have it. Want the fearsomely spicy Calabrian ‘nduja sausage? They have it. Want pasta of all shapes and sizes under the sun in bags the size of pillows?
Well, you get the idea.
The constant through it all, however, has always been fresh pasta.
Bob even met Deloras through pasta, selling it to her at the restaurant where she worked in Lymm. When they had a child, she was nestled in a bouncy chair in the corner of the grocery store, surrounded by…yes, pasta.
“I don’t think we’d get away with it now,” he laughs.
Everything was perhaps predestined. His mother made fresh pasta at home and young Bob helped roll it out. His father was also in the business.
Originally from southern Italy near Pompeii, Bob’s father worked in a Jewish noodle factory in St Albans (the location where the BBC’s infamous April Fool’s Day ‘spaghetti tree’ hoax was made) after he arrived in the UK as a POW after World War II.
So obviously when Bob moved to Manchester to study food technology at the polytechnic, he became one of the first in town to start making his own fresh pasta.
Amato still makes a large amount of pasta today – around 100 kg a day – using the same beautiful vintage pasta rolling machine he started the business with, although Bob naturally gave up on doing it all himself. .
When it comes to pizza, everywhere from Croma to the new kid on the block, Ramona relies on the supply lines Bob and Deloras have direct to Italy, from Caputo Blue pizza flour to specialty San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the volcanic soil around Vesuvius, near where his family originated from the fior de latte mozzarella.
The business grew rapidly, growing from a grocery store to a railroad arch, then another railroad arch, then another, before Bob and Deloras purchased the warehouse space that they now occupy, the former Arriva bus depot, in 2013.
On their own, they now have 40 employees and 18 vans, delivering specialty products throughout the city and the North West.
And while the heart of the business is Italian cuisine, you can also get everything else here, from Thai curry pastes to frozen fries.
“There’s always something new,” says Deloras. “Last year, everyone wanted matcha powder, and now we’re being asked for dashi, so we have to go out and get some.”
Yet, like everyone else – especially those supplying the restaurant industry – the past few years have been difficult.
When the “lockdown one” hit, in March 2020, Amato lost 80% of its business overnight.
“It was like, ‘wow’,” Bob said. They both still look a little shocked.
This added to the growing complications of Brexit, the serious ramifications of which were only just beginning to crystallize in the months leading up to the pandemic.
They thought they should just close, and they already had shipments of perishables in transit from Italy that couldn’t cancel and didn’t know if they’d be able to sell them or not. They froze huge amounts of it, but didn’t know if they would be able to keep it going or not.
So, in an effort to recoup some of their losses, Deloras came up with the idea of turning much of the warehouse receiving area into a pop-up store.
It’s still there two years later, the shelves crammed with specialty products to peruse, from jars of truffle stew to canolis to high-end wine vinegars (and, of course, fresh pastas).
“A lot of people who came to us when we were a delicatessen still come to us now for their kilo of Parmesan cheese, and they haggle with us, and they still want that 10p cut,” laughs Deloras.
“And they send their children to us now. It’s almost like a day outside.
Those regular customers – friends, really – also became a lifeline in the lockdown, as essentials like pasta and flour disappeared from supermarket shelves but were in abundance at Amato.
“WhatsApp groups started popping up and people started making street deliveries,” Deloras says.
“Word of mouth spread, and all of a sudden we were doing door-to-door deliveries. Then we started making boxes of antipasti. We were doing 70 or 80 every week. It really helped.
Although most restaurants closed and furloughed staff, green sprouts quickly began to appear as some Amato customers started doing take-out and selling meal kits.
And as lockdowns eased and restaurants started to reopen, business started picking up.
But the specter of Brexit has started to come back with him.
Amato lost European staff who decided to return home and found supply lines to Europe were slower than ever, more expensive and tangled with bureaucratic bureaucracy which Brexit campaigners said was l one of the things we would be sort of freed from once we left the EU.
Bob, who still travels to Italy about every six weeks, calls it a “perfect storm.”
“I don’t see why you would want to do that on the nearest market you’re trading with,” he says, bewildered. “Who you’ve been trading with since 1974. And people forget that we needed Europe much more than they needed us then.
They started the business in 1992 and therefore never experienced frictionless trade with the EU until before Brexit.
“It was 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. Being estranged from your closest partners is the politics of madness,” he continues.
“[The government] wanted to do this Brexit, and were forced to do it. They couldn’t stop the steam train or it would have revealed their lies. They knew it was going to be bad.
“It was pretty obvious that the prices were always going to go up. Now there are these massive anomalies. Like every time we bring in a pallet of produce, any pallet, it costs us an extra £100, whatever. There’s customs clearance, there’s notification and all the paperwork.
“The transport has increased. They can’t get the drivers, and the drivers there are asking for more pay. The ports are blocked by containers because there are not enough drivers, the ships therefore have to wait three days at sea to be unloaded.
“It affects the cost of fuel, the cost of ships being inoperative, all of this has an impact on everything. Covid has had an impact on Brexit. It has made an already difficult situation much, much worse.
The duration of a shipment from Italy to the UK has now increased by six days, meaning they are struggling to be nimble and work with what restaurants need at all times. And that’s without the cost of almost everything going up.
The challenges that Bob, Deloras and their team at Amato have faced over the past two years would have been enough to make anyone throw in the towel.
But as he shows you around his sprawling warehouse, with its vast array of products, its almost comically giant walk-in freezers with huge ice cubes hanging from the ceiling, and the hive of activity that it is, busy with forklifts, he is clearly deeply proud of what they have built here.
“Yes, we are proud,” he said. “It was not easy at all. But yes, we are very proud.
You can find Amato’s contact details and product listings on their website.
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