We’ve only got as far as the snug by the entrance, but we can tell our hosts for the evening are busy.
It’s not the service that’s the give-away. We’ve got drinks, vast menus and a specials board to peruse and we’re being perfectly well attended to. It’s the over-laden coat hooks at the door that speak volumes about the popularity of Vito’s dining room.
Vito Ciarolo’s restaurant has been going for 21 years and some 85 per cent of his customers are regulars. Even though it’s snowing lightly outside, the weather hasn’t put the Saturday night crowd off.
We’re here for two things we’ve heard a lot about; the authenticity of the food, plus the wild boar sent from hunters in Tuscany.
Vito came to Sheffield from Southern Italy over 30 years ago and launched what is one of a handful of city restaurants that are genuinely Italian-owned and run. He prides himself in having a collection of dishes from his homeland; flavours from the south and also from Tuscany and Puglia.
The menu certainly bears that out; the choice is vast – there are appetisers, starting at £3.90 for bread and oil and £4.10 for bruschetta, from which we select a hand-made garlic bread with tomato and cheese at £5.60, 17 starters, three risottos, eight pastas, nine steak dishes, five of veal, four chicken, three lamb, eight fish and 12 pizzas.
And then there are even more on the blackboard. It’s a veggie’s delight too, with 10 meat-free dishes to choose from.
There are plenty of instantly-recognisable Italian classics, but most of the dishes are indeed unusual. For Sheffield, anyway; most small-town trattorias the length and breadth of Italy feature them. Fillet steak (choose from British beef or the £2 cheaper South American) cooked with sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary, chilli, garlic and parsley, for example. Chicken cooked with brandy and mustard seeds for another. Though one of the lamb dishes sounds almost Moroccan; it’s cooked with prunes, almonds, cinnamon, ginger and saffron.
We find prices on the pizza and pasta selection very reasonable but elsewhere some are pretty steep. Those steaks, for example, range from £15.95 to £21.70. The most expensive fish dish is £18.90 and starters go from £4.95 for a mushroom dish to £9.60 for fagottini di bresaola, cured beef parcels filled with mascarpone cheese.
The £9.20 Fondue al Tartufo I chose was disappointing. It sounded good; melted pecorino cheese with truffle (I LOVE both of these expensive Italian ingredients), served with Sardinian music bread. However it had not so much been melted as roasted in the oven. It arrived sizzling with most of it stuck to the bottom of the dish, which was a shame, as the taste was heavenly. As the portion had been rendered so small, it didn’t seem at all worth nine quid. The Sicilian bread was thin and crisp – an Italian version of a poppadom.
Our other starter, funghi piccante at £5.20, was a much better size. Though in this case, the dish hadn’t been cooked enough. The mushrooms were still a bit firm and there was some sort of bread crumb in there which hadn’t crisped. Tomato, garlic and chilli had been promised, but not enough of it had been delivered. It was a bit bland. Rather like the dining room. People clearly love this place and, if they’ve been coming for years probably don’t notice the fact that it now looks a bit old-fashioned (though maybe it’s another strike for authenticity? Many a back-street restaurant in Italy looks like Vito’s, with a feature bare brick wall, upholstered chairs and paintings of Italy).
My main course, risotto terra e mare, was a reasonable £8.60. Cooked with white wine, artichokes, potatoes, cannellini beans, prawns and fontina cheese, it was creamy and mild comfort food, though to my mind the addition of potato in such a carb-laden dish didn’t quite work.
We were dining with friends who both opted for pasta (Vito prides himself on it; on the website there’s a quote which says: “One award-winning British chef once said of Vito’s…”it is the only place I know where I can find a plate of pasta that is truly properly cooked”). She had lasagna al forno £8.50 and enjoyed it; he loved the chef’s choice – farfalle alla domenico, £8.20, butterfly-shaped pasta with a delicate blend of smoked salmon, prawns and rocket, a dash of great fish stock adding depth of flavour.
We had encouraged my husband to splash out on the speciality of the house – that wild boar at a whopping £21.95.
It was meltingly soft with an intense flavour, married beautifully with a deep, rich stew-style sauce. But he was over-faced; the portion was huge. Vito, a suggestion; why not give diners a third less and charge a more affordable £14?
All desserts were £4.95 and didn’t disappoint. Tartufo limoncello, lemon ice cream with a soft limoncello liqueur centre coated with crushed lemon meringue was zesty and refreshing, though maybe not home-made. We wolfed down the big, fat, cream-stuffed profiteroles with milk chocolate sauce.
We shared a decent house red at £12.90 and decided that the meal had been good, but would perhaps have been better had the restaurant kitchen been less busy. Service was good too, though of the type that constantly interrupts your conversation.
But we’d like to go back and try other dishes: that menu had whetted our appetites. Though maybe on a quieter night.
* My star ratings (out of five):
Jo Davison, Food Writer
Vito’s Italian Restaurant, 284 South Road Walkey S6 3TE, * Tel: 0114 233 3574, Vito’s
* Open: 6.30-11:30pm six nights a week (closed Mondays). also open Sundays for lunch
* Parking: Tricky. Find space on a side-road nearby.
* All cards accepted