There’s something about stumbling upon an unexpected culinary delight that makes the food taste even better. Such is the case with Sheffield’s newest restaurant.
For decades Stocksbridge was the bustling hub of a thriving steel industry. It was full of powerful machinery, hard-working people and gritty reality. But it wasn’t the kind of place you’d think of going for dinner.
How times have changed.
As the steel crisis raises even more uncertainty over the future of the industry, Stocksbridge has been given a new commercial heart. And that includes a new flagship restaurant, Ponti’s Italian Kitchen, which is a wonderful discovery in this once rather grim corner of the city.
The £50m Fox Valley shopping destination – officially opened on June 16 by Ab Fab star Joanna Lumley – is revitalising a 28-acre former steelworks site in the centre of this community, offering fresh hope and a new lease of life.
In addition to an Aldi supermarket, many of the 20-plus shops are already open, selling everything from pet supplies and outdoor gear to bikes, homewares and clothing. And more is to come, including a Sandersons boutique department store, home to a number of high-end brands.
Our ethos is to concentrate on the brilliant produce and culinary heritageStefano Ispani
It’s a great place to wander: an attractive stone-built village, with features including a mini Peace Gardens, complete with fountain, and a coffee shop designed to look like a giant umbrella – in tribute to local Samuel Fox, who patented this British essential in the 1850s.
Overlooking this landscaped area is Ponti’s: a little piece of Italy.
The two-storey building may be brand new, but inside it bears all the hallmarks of an authentic Italian restaurant.
The ground floor is dominated by a central dark-wood screen, giving privacy to individual booths, and on one side a long, marble-topped bar.
One end is a serving area, with beer pumps, shelves of wine and display of cakes; the other is an open kitchen, where diners can watch the chefs at work behind racks of hanging chillies, garlic and hams.
Upstairs are more tables, an airy prosecco bar with two full-size olive trees and a glass-walled balcony overlooking the square.
The quality and attention to detail are impressive – and that goes for the staff too.
A team of locals has been recruited, but a core number of both waiters and chefs has been imported from London.
“It wasn’t a problem getting volunteers,” says manager Argys Myrtja. “In fact we had to put a cap on it at 14 because so many wanted to move to Sheffield.”
He has been here for a month now and loves his new home: “I never spoke to my neighbours in London, but we’ve already been invited round for a meal here and everyone is so warm and friendly.”
Ponti’s is a family business which already has two branches in the West End; this is its first venture outside the capital.
“We wanted to expand and this seemed like a good place,” says MD Stefano Ispani.
“I’m very impressed with the quality of the development – and we’ve had a very good response from customers.
“Our ethos is to concentrate on the brilliant produce and culinary heritage of the Emilia Romagna region, where my family comes from.”
The menu offers a good choice without being unwieldy. There’s a range of stuzzichini and antipasti (£6.50 for soup), pasta, risotto and pizza (from £9.50) as well as salads, meat and fish dishes (from £13.50).
Set menus, available lunchtime and early evening, are good value at £16 for two courses or £19 for three.
A long-aproned waiter brings bread and oil with our bottles of lunchtime San Pellegrino water.
I start with fritto di mare: succulent shelled king prawns and squid rings, lightly battered rather than just dusted in flour, but both delicious with lemon wedges and a little pot of paprika mayonnaise.
My companion goes for bruschetta pomodoro from the set menu. This dish looks stunning: crisp baked bread topped with garlic, juicy pieces of bright red cherry tomato, generously drizzled in pungent olive oil and finished with vivid green basil. Simply delicious.
His main course – rosemary chicken – looks equally good: a butterflied breast, marinated and chargrilled, served on a nest of grilled mushrooms, peppers and courgettes, and a swirl of pesto.
My tagliolini al trombolotto is something of a discovery. The fresh tuna is diced, which I hadn’t expected, but the delicate flavour, combined with a traditional citrus-infused oil dressing, is delicious while herb breadcrumbs provide a finishing crunch.
And so to dessert: warm, gooey chocolate brownie with thick-and-creamy salted caramel gelato for me.
For him, tarte tatin: a cloud of sweet-sharp apples tucked beneath a blanket of buttery, caramelised pastry.
We finish our meal with excellent coffee and biscotti. Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £48.50.
* Ponti’s Italian Kitchen, Fox Valley Way, Sheffield S36 2AE 0114 2887475 Pontis Italian Kitchen