IN those long, hungry hours between lunch and dinner I sometimes entertain myself with a fantasy meal made up of past dishes of the day.
No problem about the ‘restaurant’ I’d eat it in: it would be that barge, like an oversized Mothers Pride bread tray, on the canals in Austin, Texas, with a Mexican trio playing the music. I may have been tiddly because I can’t remember the food but the atmosphere was great.
For mains there’d be pig’s trotter stuffed with mushrooms, chicken mousse and foie gras by Michelin-starred Max Fischer at Baslow Hall.
Dessert, depending on my mood, would be either lemon tart at Adlard’s, in Norwich, sadly no more, or any of the bread and butter puddings over the years from Sheffield’s Bosworth brothers.
The starter is a tricky one. Will it be Bernard Loiseau’s frogs’ legs with garlic purée and a parsley jus at La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, Burgundy (he’s the one who shot himself when he thought he was losing one of his three Michelin stars) or Nancy Dellagiovanna’s barbecued spare ribs? Seriously.
Sometimes you want posh food, sometimes there’s nothing better than filling your gob with something a little more basic which makes you smack your lips.
Now Burgundy is a long way to go back for a second opinion but Nancy is at the tiny Bella Napoli on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield. As a matter of fact, I was there only the other day.
Men – and it’s mostly men – ring up and ask if the ribs are on before they commit themselves to book. And if for some reason she’s run out they ask if she’s got any sauce left over so they can just have that and dip their bread in it.
Waitress Mila is bringing it to me now. There are four ribs in a dish, swimming in a sweet and sour sauce or, as the Italians say, agrodolce.
“It smells lovely,” says Mila, who in all these years – the Bella Napoli has been going since 2002– has still to taste it. She also brings bread and a spoon to mop up the sauce, paper serviettes and a finger bowl because this is a dish you have to eat with your hands, and a very messy one.
The ribs (£6.95) are meaty but it’s the sauce which is the star.
It’s always boiling hot so you have to wait for it to cool. First it tastes sweet, then you get the sour coming through and there’s something I can’t quite identify. Tomato, sugar and vinegar, yes, but what else?
Over the years I’ve tried to wheedle the recipe out of Venezuelan-born Nancy but she’s not giving anything away. “She sends me out of the kitchen before she puts the last thing in,” says Mila, sensing I’m trying to get it from her.
Nancy got the recipe from her mother-in-law. “At the start,” says Nancy later, giving me to understand that she’s tweaked it since.
Now I am not pretending that Nancy’s ribs are on a culinary par with Shotgun Bernard’s frogs legs (they are still the featured dish at the restaurant his widow runs) but they are for enjoyment. And that’s what counts, even though Abbeydale Road is a lot less atmospheric than Burgundy.
Bella Napoli is small, hardly seating more than 24 but when it’s full it can get very matey. Previously she and husband Vincenzo ran Pepito on London Road so they’ve been in the business for a quarter of a century.
There’s a new menu since our last visit and Mila brings a separate bit of card listing the risottos because the printers missed them off.
The missus has garlic mushrooms (£5.90) followed by home made cannelloni (£8.90), stuffed with ricotta and spinach. Like me, she always has the same thing – Spag Bol – but decides on a change this time and enjoys the lightness of the filling and the tomato sauce.
Now I’m always advising people to be adventurous but at Bella Napoli I’m a real old stick-in-the-mud. I have the pizza Napolitana (£8.10) because it’s thin and chewy and comes with anchovies. In fact, it comes with even more because I pay another £1 for an extra helping.
Nancy’s cooking – and ribs – has devoted followers but she could always do with more. Mondays to Thursdays she offers two courses for £10.99 and you can bring a bottle of wine for £1.50 corkage.
We decide to share a sweet and it’s got to be tiramisu (£4.50) because Nancy makes a version which is gratifyingly heavy on the espresso.
So there it is, I’ve scratched my itch, or rather my ribs, until the next time.
We paid just under £40 for food.