THAT likeable celebrity chef Aldo Zilli was in town earlier this year and naturally I popped over for a chat.
He was promoting one of the many products associated with his name but as it was a long month I didn’t quite have the brass to shell out £170,000 for an Alfa Romeo like the one at Lookers’ showroom.
But I did have a tenner for an Aldo Zilli pizza.
Among other things – his restaurants, cookery books, baby foods, frozen foods – the Harry Hill of catering (it’s the bald head and fancy shirts with big collars which do it) is also a designer of pizzas for the Prezzo chain.
Now you wouldn’t think a pizza would need designing but apparently it does. In my book some tomato sauce, a little mozzarella, perhaps some olives and almost certainly some capers or anchovies for a little bit of pep, are enough but I’m just a stodgy old foodie.
While, in my defence, most self-respecting pizza chefs in Italy rarely use more than four ingredients, that doesn’t cut the mustard with British diners who like their pizzas piled high.
Prezzo has taken over from the old Caffe Uno on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield (there is another branch at Valley Centertainment) and while this is a bright, lively atmospheric eaterie it’s the same old story of Italian-style food not done particularly well.
You know what it’s meant to be but it lacks something, rather like seeing a photocopy of the Mona Lisa.
In fact, Aldo might well be the most Italian thing about this pizza chain because many of the staff seem to be Eastern European.
Prezzo does other things as well but I counted 19 pizzas on the menu – five by Aldo, 13 ‘ordinary’ and one on the specials menu designed by Prezzo wunderkind Wanderson, a young lad with just the one name, who has risen from waiter to area head chef in under two years.
Just don’t ask for a pizza Napoletana because Prezzo, like so many of these places, doesn’t do anchovies. I’m thinking of taking a jar with me next time I’m out for a pizza.
We start well. Prezzo’s take on arancini (£5.10) isn’t a bad effort, three deep-fried rice balls with a mushroom and mozzarella filling, which manages to be respectably tasty although the tomato chilli dip is bland.
My wife is not so lucky. Her calamari is horrible, so overcooked that they are like those ‘scratchings’ you get for a few pennorth in a chippie but not as good. These squid scratchings cost a fair price at £5.10.
Now, as it happens, Prezzo is the Italian word for ‘price’ and, we soon discover, there are two of them in operation here. There’s the menu price and the voucher price. Vouchers vary but they’re ‘the two mains for the price of one’ type of deal.
Aldo Zilli has designed five ‘VIPizzas,’ mostly just fivepence short of £12. “Bigger and crispier with great toppings and amazing flavours,” promises Aldo.
Big, certainly. My meat pizza was rectangular, about 15 inches by seven, on its own board. And it was crisp although a bit of a chew, as was the Calabrese sausage, renowned in Italy for its hardness, which mostly topped it.
The centrepiece was a slice of ham enclosing some lemon-dressed rocket and there was also some Milano sausage, pancetta, hot red chillis, mozzarella and a decent tomato sauce but I ate it without much enthusiasm. The amazing flavours seemed to elude me.
Restaurant manager Kamila Muszak told me afterwards that the Zilli pizzas have been slow to catch on but are now doing better business.
My wife, downsizing in preparation for an Italian holiday and the chance to wear That New Dress, thought the light options menu of pastas or pizzas with salads a good idea.
But she failed to drum up much enthusiasm for her fusili with chicken and roast red peppers (£8.95) in the scantest of tomato sauces.
“It’s dull. I’ve got four small pieces of chicken and four of pepper. I’m going to cut them up into tiny pieces so I can surprise myself,” she said.
She also made the valid point that Prezzo doesn’t follow through its main course diet dishes with anything on the starters or desserts, which featured that Italian classic sticky toffee pudding . “They don’t even do a sorbet.”
I sampled Wandersons’s Pannetone Pannacotta (the menu can’t even spell it right) at £4.50, the traditional dessert studded with cake, but the one thing it reminded me of was blancmange.
We finished up with a surprise. The coffee is good.
A few days later I ate some parmigiana di melanzane in a city centre café and I wondered what it had got which Prezzo hadn’t. Well, that dish was cooked with passion, with gusto – and by Italians.
We paid £35.95 for food, £13.95 for a bottle of house white and £3.80 for espressos, overpriced and leaving us underwhelmed.
631 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PT.
Tel: 0114 267 0565.
Open daily 12-11.30pm (until 11pm Sundays). Vegetarian dishes. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Street parking.
My star ratings (out of five):