New Carluccio’s on Eccleshall Road is so popular it took me a couple of attempts to get in
Since I’ve got more cookery books by that meatball-shaped chef Antonio Carluccio than anyone else on my shelves you might have expected me to hightail it to Meadowhall when a Carluccio’s restaurant opened in 2012. Not so.
The so-called greedy chef sold his stake in the chain which bears his name nine years ago – he and his then wife Priscilla pocketed a reported £10 million between them – and I’ve never believed celebrity chefs have fairy dust they sprinkle over restaurants in which they do not cook.
Besides I couldn’t forget that interview an unwise Antonio gave to a Sunday newspaper after he’d sold up saying Carluccio’s now couldn’t even make a decent soup.
It caused a stink.
Since then the chain has changed hands yet again and has over 70 outlets in Britain with outposts in Dubai.
Happily, the man who gave a leg up to a young chef called Jamie Oliver (who worked at his Neal Street Restaurant) has returned to the fold as consultant and figurehead.
He opened the new Carluccio’s on Ecclesall Road a month or two ago and it is so popular it took me a couple of attempts to get in. Naturally I was going to order the soup.
Pale colours make the dining room look light and airy and the space is made interesting with room dividers. Shelves are given over to branded oils and pasta and books by the maestro. Staff are in black with little pill box hats and seem glad to see you.
It’s a pretty wide choice of dishes which include all the old favourites, a fixed price menu, specials board and an impressive gluten-free menu which includes pasta.
There were three soups to choose from and I had the special (in fact I ate solely from this menu at all three courses), cannellini bean soup (£5.45).
Signor Carluccio needn’t worry, the soup was splendid. It had the consistency of single cream, depth of flavour from Parma ham, a summery touch from underlying notes of lemon, a little zing from chilli and was, like the lovely homemade focaccia which came with it, expertly seasoned.
Which brings me to Carluccio’s condiment policy: you get salt on the table but no pepper.
The salt’s in crystals in an open pot, something I hate because, rather li ke that Bombay Mix in Indian takeaways, you can’t be too sure of the finger hygiene of those who went before.
There is no pepperpot. Instead, waiting staff have one in their pinnies and ask if you want any when they bring your plates.
This seems to betray a basic misunderstanding about food. The art of cookery begins with skill in seasoning. The job of a restaurant critic is to judge it.
One might want to adjust it to personal taste later (rarely for me, except with potatoes) but to season indiscriminately before even a mouthful is an insult to the chef. As it happens, extra pepper would have spoiled the balance of the soup. And should it be needed does one later flag down a passing waitress for pepper?
My wife ordered arancini (£4.95), deep-fried balls of risotto and if a little misshapen (one looked like a macaroon) were very good, one pesto flavoured and the other a meat ragu.
Saltimbocca (£12.95) is a favourite of mine and was on the specials board. Usually it’s a thin slice of veal wrapped in Parma ham with a sage leaf or two, briefly fried and the pan splashed with wine for a sauce.
Here head chef Richard Barber, formerly at Rowley’s, Baslow, had used pork (although veal was elsewhere on the menu) but my dish was a little disappointing, the escalope too thick and the meat a little tense. It didn’t help that the sauté potatoes with it tasted as if they had been around a bit and while I braved the salt pot it didn’t help.
A restaurant critic treads a fine line between frankness and diplomacy when asked for an opinion at the table and I obviously teetered over it because our waitress sensed unhappiness.
I said as I have written and she duly reported to the manager who offered her condolences and explain they wanted honest opinions rather than the usual British “fine, thanks” when it isn’t.
On the other hand my wife had nothing to complain of with her seafood linguine (£10.95), the pasta accurately cooked, the squid, mussels and prawns tasting fresh.
We came to Carluccio’s after two spells eating out in Venice and Liguria and, the previous night, at Sheffield’s incomparable VeroGusto, and it didn’t fare badly.
I don’t believe you have to be a native to cook Italian, that country’s cuisine is also a food philosophy: a few of the very best ingredients, cooked simply.
That said, you don’t muck around with things. While my limoncello panna cotta (£5.25) was a delicate if overpriced dessert, if you care about tiramisu you won’t want the mixed berry version (£5.40), more like an Italian take on summer pudding. Stick to the original on the menu and it’s cheaper.
We paid £48.45 for food and wine, coffee and water brought the total to £66.30.
And you might want to bring your own salt cellar.
Star ratings out of five:
Carluccio’s, 509 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, S11 8PR. Tel: 0114 266 3216. Open Mon- Sat 8am - 11pm, Sun 9am - 10.30pm.
Licensed. Music. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Gluten-free food. Children’s menu. Web: Carluccio’s