Fab food and service at one of Ecclesall Road’s best-loved Italian restaurants
It’s become something of a Sheffield institution.
Known over the years for its coffee, Italian food and Eccy-Road-trendy clientele, it has beaten a seismic financial fright, a partnership split and the Ecclesall Road explosion of food and drink competition.
Nonna’s will be 20 years old in June. In those two decades it has managed to maintain a personality of its own.
But what is that personality in 2016 and how does it compare to 1996 when it first opened its doors?
The man behind Nonna’s in Sheffield - there is a Nonna’s in Chesterfield too but more on that later - is Maurizio Mori, a Sheffielder of Italian parentage and inclination.
Walk into Nonna’s and there’s always a bit of a buzz about the place. We went on a Monday evening and it was pretty busy and got busier as we ate.
We were offered a couple of tables and chose the one next to the kitchen door so we could see the food going out.
We were seated by Enrico Quaglia, a tall slim man, all dark Italian confidence and charm with a look that’s a cross between Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and a young Eric Sykes.
He’s a striking fellow.
Nonna’s had a complete revamp just over a year ago which gives it a rustic, slightly arty Italian feel.
I went bold and ordered mussels for starters, my daughter Hannah played safe and had bruschetta.
I have overcome a childhood hatred of mussels from memories of my dad boiling pans of them in the kitchen at home and stinking the house out.
Now they’re a favourite - especially when done like this. My dad would love them - and no stink either. These are flavoured with chilli, parsley & garlic butter and served with grilled piadina bread. Gorgeous and theatrical in appearance with a hint of heat, a rattle of shell on shell and a delicious broth, all to be mopped up by the substantial bread. With a cold glass of Peroni this is top stuff.
Hannah’s bruschetta was nicely presented on a piece of slate with gar lic and olive oil and was crisp and tasty without being sensational.
For our main courses I went for the merluzzo - pan fried cod, buttered kale, saffron mash & white wine sauce.
The mash is made from polenta - polenta is a coarsely-ground corn flour - and is soft, buttery and well seasoned and lifted by the sharp and creamy sauce.
The kale gives a little crunch and earthy bitterness and the cod steak is sweet and beautifully cooked with a crisp skin. All terrific.
Hannah went for lasagna which was as rich and hearty as they come - no surprise when you realise that the sauce is cooked slowly for eight hours to get the full flavour from the beef and pork, tomatoes, onions, wine and herbs and then topped with a béchamel sauce and cheese.
Again it’s a triumph of simple cooking.
In the background Enrico prompts, covers and smooths the way with that just-at-the-right-moment attentiveness ensuring flawless service.
So what about that Chesterfield branch?
“We opened Nonna’s in Sheffield in June 1996 and then the Chesterfield branch in 2009 with my then business partner Gian Bohan.
“We had an amazing start in Sheffield and we were a bit of a novelty at the time and then the coffee shops started opening up and the Italian restaurants on Ecclesall Road.
“We have been through some ups and downs but we have always maintained a good customer base.
“We were fine together for 18 years then we decided to split up the business so he had the Chesterfield branch and I had Sheffield,” said 49-year-old Maurizio, whose family originally came from Tuscany where he went back to train - along with time also spent in Austria, France and Switzerland.
“We closed to renovate the place in January last year and opened up again in my name and it’s going really well, from strength to strength. We have gone back to what Nonna’s is all about, that is adding a modern touch to traditional, regional Italian food.
“We’re introducing regional specialities each month. This month it’s Tuscany and a wild boar ragu. We have to order the specialist meat when it is available and when it’s gone it’s gone. We use Crawshaws butchers and Deli Italia for specialist Italian supplies and Brakes for our fish.
“We do coffee and cakes and lunches in the day time and we are making better use of the space.”
On to dessert and perhaps the best course of the night.
I had red wine poached pear, gorgonzola ice cream & walnut praline. It was a delight. The pear was sweet and soft with a hint of red wine, the Gorgonzola ice cream a revelation.
Sweet and savoury all at once the aromatic essence of the cheese combines with the sweet creaminess of ice cream fantastically, and goes superbly with the pear.
Hannah had Orange polenta cake, vanilla mascarpone & orange syrup. It’s a rich, moist cake with slivers of candied orange peel, orange leather and sticky orange syrup that complements the luxurious creaminess of the mascarpone.
It’s cracking food in a good atmosphere with excellent service.
That’s how to survive.
Happy 20th anniversary.
Star rating out of five:
Food: 4 1/2
* Nonna’s, 537-541 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PR.
* Tel: 0114 268 6166
* Open Monday to Saturday 8.30am - 11pm, Sunday 9am - 11pm