Britons should be eternally grateful for the most recent Roman invasion of our shores, writes Jo Davison.
Never mind that Peter Kay sketch, Italian immigrants blessed us with their cuisine. Not least, their garlic bread.
In recent years, many an Italian restaurant has upped the ante and strived to give us an uber-authentic taste of their homeland; cuisine just-a-like-a mama, or even-a nonna, would have made, right down to the last Sicilian lemon pip-squeak.
But there are times when you’ll happily say Ciao to all of that. Because what you hunger for are the familiar, satisfying, Anglicised Italian dishes and flavours you grew up with.
Pungent garlic and soft onion melting into rich tomato; oregano-laced meatiness and creamy, olive-oiled unctuousness... that’s exactly what regulars at Angelo Cerrone’s Italian restaurant in Ecclesfield have been twizzling their pasta forks into for the last 12 years.
Chef and owner is John Mills, a former Sheffield greengrocer who didn’t know he had Italian ancestry until he was half-way through setting up his restaurant. A relative told him his great-grandfather’s surname was Cerrone - and that he’d set up an ice cream business on moving to Sheffield, and there was the name.
He readily admits his dishes don’t strive for authenticity. But he prides himself on packing them with flavour and aims for consistency. “I want it 100 per cent right every time you walk in the door,” he says.
John has loads of regulars and he so likes to please them, he daren’t take anything off the menu. “They come back asking for their favourite dish; it would upset them if we weren’t making it any more,” he says as he apologises for what he knows is a pretty huge menu.
There are 22 starters, what with all the garlic breads, and literally dozens of main courses. There are18 pasta dishes, six risottos, six chicken dishes and eight sauces for steaks – rib eye or fillet, both British.
As if that’s not enough, there are seven fish dishes, two lamb and two pork fillet dishes and 15 hand-made pizzas.
As we deliberate, we sip on a good and fruity Sangiovese red at £3.60 for a big glass. Though I make a mental note that Sunday to Wednesday, diners can bring their own non-sparkling wine and pay £2.20 corkage (or £3.94 if they opt for the two for one menu which runs on Sunday, Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
The restaurant, in a former bank on Ecclesfield’s High Street, looks in need of a bit of TLC from an Italian mama; I hazard a guess that it is pretty much as it was when it opened. The outside is painted pale blue and the inside is a bit dated – tiled floor, terracotta walls and little else going for it but smart tables and chairs set with crisp table-linen. In the centre, John cooks away in a steel-clad open kitchen.
The tired decor makes us think the food might be too, so we go simple, starting with £3.75 focaccia pomadore (garlic bread with tomato) and a bowl of olives (£1.50).
What a surprise, though; the olives come topped with a lemony, hand-made pesto and the garlic bread is all you could hope for: blisteringly hot, ultra thin and oozing with sweetened garlic and tomato. It was so good I couldn’t wait for it to cool and so burned my mouth.
Next up, Tagliatelle Cerrone’s, a £9.75 bubbling earthenware dish full to the brim with baked meaty, cheesy sauce and pasta. It’s got oodles in it – Bolognaise, pepperoni, spinach, mushrooms, tomato, onion, cream and mozarella. The flavours are dense and satisfyingly rich; it hits the spot perfectly.
My £9.60 Risotto Specialita is a new dish and extremely good it is too. Big, fat prawns, cut so they twist, sit amid a very good, loose risotto in which the flavours of sweet fennel and spicy Italian sausage come to the fore and, like the pasta dish, the portion is very generous.
And to think, 12 years ago the chef spent his days delivering fruit and veg to city restaurants. He changed direction when he was offered a job in the kitchens at Santinos on Ecclesall Road. Within six months he could cook the whole menu.
Surprisingly, there are only four desserts to choose from – and just two are hand-made. Presumably diners are usually too full to bother with puds.
We order John’s vanilla creme brulee - we watch him blow-torch the sugar topping to a mini ice rink and the waitress, for whom nothing was too much trouble, set a dainty physalis fruit a-top. And my, it is lovely; thick, creamy and very moreish.
Our bill comes to a very reasonable £36.75. But about that decor, John... it’s not half as good as your food. This could be a stunning little place.