The Italian Connection


A lifetime in food has taken Manuele Orto from his native rural Sicily to rural Northumberland – and quite a few plaes in between. Sheilagh Matheson enjoys a taste of Italy

It’s 5pm on a rainy night in Corbridge, and a family group sits chatting round a table, the children drawing pictures while their parents sip wine and cappuccinos. They are surrounded by temptation – ice cream, wine, Italian biscuits and, of course, pasta and olive oil. Welcome to the latest extension to the Italian restaurant Il Piccolo.

When the proprietor Manuele Orto appears, he flirts with the girls, jokes with the boys and leaves everyone beaming and tucking into focaccia filled with Mediterranean vegetables, cheese and Italian sausage.

Il Piccolo is a family business run by Manuele and his wife Pam, with their son Stefano and his girlfriend Jordon Rowland, and staff Julie Bell and Italian Matteo Scalzotto.

The new ice cream parlour – opened in the darkest days of winter – is the latest development in a lifelong career in food which has taken them from Italy to Cornwall, London, Buckinghamshire and the Tyne Valley, far from Manuele’s birthplace in rural, central Sicily.

“My father traded in horses and my mother looked after me, my nine brothers and one sister. We had to share everything and I thought I’d be better off working. So I left home and moved near Turin to be a kitchen porter in a hotel. I was only 14,” says Manuele.

Working in the kitchen, he became a pasta chef, then deputy head chef, and stayed for six years, apart from 12 months National Service as a paratrooper. “That experience stood me in good stead for everything else in life,” he says.

When he was 19, Manuele met Pam, a lively lass from Wallsend who was on a skiing holiday. Their holiday romance led to her moving to Italy to work alongside him. They married and have been a team for 32 years.

Manuele says: “My luck in life was meeting Pamela. She is the core of my life, the best thing that ever happened to me. She is practical and I’m impulsive and follow my emotions. We discuss everything and we’ve made this work together.”

It was Pam’s sister who urged them to open a restaurant in the North East. They launched it in Prudhoe and called it Il Piccolo, which means small, because there was only room for 22 people. After 12 years they sold it to an enthusiastic customer.

Soon after, in 2006, Manuele stood opposite the near-derelict former Cooperative store on St Helen’s Street in Corbridge and imagined what they could do with it.

He says: “It was like a bomb site. It needed gutting and had no central heating. Everyone, including Pam, said it was mad. But we sank all our savings into it and opened a new Il Piccolo with a deli and function room.

“We provide something different, making customers feel really welcome, as they would if they were coming into our home,” says Manuele. “Everyone is special. Many have become our most fantastic friends.”

Both Manuele and Pam have a gift for remembering not only names and faces, but also customers’ favourite food and drinks.

The have expanded to create Stuzzico wine and tapas bar on one side of the dining room, and a deli and ice cream parlour on the other.

“Parents collect their children from school and come here to treat the kids and chat to their friends,” says Manuele. “We sell snacks like focaccia, soups, sandwiches and what we think is best ice cream in the world.”

By enlarging the business, Manuele and Pam have almost returned the building to how it was in1908 when it was a large Wylam and Prudhoe Cooperative store. Some of the original grain silos are still visible upstairs.

Ironically, neither Pam nor Manuele particularly wanted a life in food. In fact, Manuele dreamed of being a film director. They have survived a bad house fire, and Manuele had a heart attack, but they always kept the restaurant open, and their combined Sicilian and Geordie charm and humour make it a pleasure to visit.

Il Piccolo, St Helen’s Street, Corbridge, NE45 5BE, tel 01434 634 554,

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