Fumo in Birmingham serves up miniature morsels of Italian fare in lively surroundings. Emily Bridgewater went to find out if good things really do come in small packages.
I have a confession. Tapas, small plates, cicchetti, smorgasbords, mezze . . . call these trendy titbits of food what you will, but one thing remains true – they stress me out.
Sharing small plates of grub, which have been ordered by consensus of a gaggle of people, sounds very chic, very continental, but it never sits quite right with me.
Call me old fashioned, or just greedy, but when it comes to food I like to know that what’s in front of me is mine, all mine.
So, it was with much trepidation that I visited Fumo, a Venetian tapas – or cicchetti as the Italians call it – restaurant in Birmingham’s business district.
It’s the sister of San Carlo, one of the city’s most reputable Italian restaurants, and when we arrived on a Friday evening it was already bustling with workers enjoying their TFI drinks.
Fumo doesn’t take bookings but our party of four arrived early enough to be seated immediately. If you don’t bag a table straight away however, there’s a very modern bar area to enjoy an apertif.
In fact, as the evening unfolded more and more people filled the bar, probably with no intention of eating although this only contributed to the lively atmosphere. Chic in appearance it may be, but this is place you come to talk loudly, to gesticulate, to eat well and to drink – how very Italian.
The menu’s extensive and helpfully divided into different sections including fish, meat, vegetables, pasta, pizza. However, I needed to check with one of the waiters that they were all cicchetti, something you’d perhaps not automatically guess from the pricetag. Most dishes are pitched around the £6-£7 mark although some are considerably more. When you’re advised to order five or six dishes per couple you realise this could be a fairly costly night out.
But we decided to throw caution to the wind and order 12 dishes between the four of us. That’s three dishes each. Three dishes for me. Mine. Hands off.
I kept needing to remind myself this was not the way it works round here, especially when the dishes arrive spontaneously and in no particular order with the idea that everyone dips in until the next one arrives.
But before any food arrived we all happily knocked back a few glasses of Trebbiano wine. No one was happier than our Italianophile pals, who said this particular wine was virtually impossible to find on these shores. At just shy of £20 a bottle it wasn’t a bank breaker either although, like the food menu, there were options to suit all budgets and tastes.
The food arrived slowly at first, starting off a proscuttio and mushroom pizza, impressively served on a narrow wood chopping board. Freshly cooked with a crisp base and deliciously doughy edge it was a real crowd-pleaser, the perfect accompaniment to the crisp, white wine.
A platter of cured meats from Emili Romana followed next and while the selection was well recieved we all agreed that at £9.95 it did not represent good value for money. That said, the accompanying olives, sunblushed tomatoes and slithers of artichoke were very tasty and balanced the fattiness of the meat. We were also a little disappointed that the bread we were offered as a accompaniment added a further three quid to our bill. It’s only flour and water, after all.
A dish of tuna tartare was up next, which was prepared for us at the table by one of the waiters although it seemed a bit of a pointless exercise since there was no ceremony to it. It could have been just as well prepped in the kitchen. It was exceptionally fresh, as was the rare seared tuna atop a lemony lentil salad which arrived soon after.
It has to be said that all of the seafood dishes were outstanding, the calamari had excellent crunch, very dunk-worthy in the accompanying creamy mayo.
The dishes arrived thick and fast from then on in – quelling my nerves about fork fights and there not being quite enough to go around. There was more than plenty.
Of the two pasta dishes, the orecchiette salsicca really hit the spot despite an obvious lack of spicy Italian sausage in the sauce. The little ‘ears’ of pasta had just the right amount of bite. I could have happily eaten a plate of the stuff.
On the other half of the table, the spaghettini with prawns and chilli was lapped up with the same gusto.
Gnocchi in a rich gorgonzola sauce was imaginatively presented in a parmesan basket. Think one of those dainty parmesan biscuits you might nibble with cheese and grapes but on a grander scale and you get the picture. The little potato dumplings were light and fluffy, the sauce unctuous and moreish. You just couldn’t gnoc-chi it. The meatballs were nothing special although their pool of tomato sauce was perfect mopping juice for our bread. The considerable wedge of melanzane parmigiana – one of my favourite Italian dishes – arrived swimming in a similar tasting sauce but was none-the-less yummy.
Side orders of green beans with walnuts, and potato wedges with onions were satisfactory.
Service was brisk throughout – sometimes too brisk, at one point a wine glass was whipped away with a few mouthfuls still remaining and waiters lingered over our shoulders a bit too heavily until plates were empty enough to clear away. It certainly felt they were keen to turn tables, but that’s the name of the game here, I think. Quick bites and then it’s time to move on.
As soon as our plates were cleared we were presented with dessert menus. My partner and I opted for the dolci cicchetti, while the other half of the table shared a portion of affogato – vanilla ice cream doused in hot espresso coffee.
The dolci cicchetti – a smorgasbord of miniature desserts – was a real feast for the eyes. As well as petite profiteroles there were mouthfuls of strawberry cheesecake, tiny tiramasus, brownies and cornettos filled with patisserie cream.
If I am honest, they looked better than they tasted. It’s not that they were bad it’s just that I was expecting fireworks and was left wanting. The brownie-style squares lacked squidginess, the cheesecake a little flat. However, the teeny tiramasu was creamy, dreamy heaven. I wish I’d had a uncompromisingly large slice of tiramasu all to myself. If there is any dish not to fall in the path of the Honey I Shrunk the Desserts machine it’s tiramasu. I want to make like Nigella here and eat it with abandon and a gigantic tablespoon.
That’s my greedy side rearing its ugly head again. I’ve managed to keep it on the low this entire meal, probably because there was plenty of grub to keep me quiet so sharing didn’t seem too much of a hardship.
Plenty of food though came at a price, £148 to be exact, although this included two bottles of Trebbiano, two bottles of sparkling water and one black coffee. Service wasn’t part of the deal though. As I said, I found it a little brisk, and surprisingly nonchalant when I complained that the air conditioning system was slow-dripping on to my head from the ceiling above. A very Italian shrug was the concerned response from both the waiter and the manager. I guess we shouldn’t have expected anymore.
Still, the outstanding quality of the food more than saved the day and I would certainly return. I think it’d be the ideal spot to enjoy just a couple of dishes, either at lunch or with a few drinks before a night out. The two girls on the table next to us were doing just that. And that’s the beauty of Fumo, it can be what you want it to be; fancy bar, leisurely lunch spot, quick bite before a boogie or a fill yer boots blow-out meal with mates.
I am finally won over to the idea of sharing plates because a little of what you fancy most certainly does you good.
Fumo Waterloo Road, Birmingham, B2 5PG