A WET, chilly Tuesday evening one day last month so no need to book at a large Italian-themed restaurant which had just been rebranded, was there?
“Sorry we’re fully booked,” says a waitress, and behind her nearly every table is occupied. I’ll get the hang of this job one day.
We walk along Ecclesall Road weighing our choices and consult The List, an unwritten, mental inventory of places we might get around to.
An acquaintance has spoken highly of the Italian Kitchen, a few hundred yards along, extolling a meal in part payment for a deal providing them with new chairs.
“But it was a Freeman’s, they always taste good,” I had told him, But if his eye for food was as good as his eye for furniture, we’d give it a go.
Like its bigger neighbour up the road the Italian Kitchen has also gone in for some rebranding.
Victoria Guadagnin opened it 12 years ago as Vittoria’s then it became Vi Vi’s and, since January, the Italian Kitchen.
“We have completely changed the menu into something more contemporary. The old-style Italian restaurant is a bit old hat,” Victoria told me later.
That meant she and her brother Simon, the head chef, throwing out cherished dishes like pollo alla crema, allowing customers to design their own calzone and bringing in beefburgers – and waiting for the sky to fall in.
Now she and Simon know all about old-style Italians because their dad was Paolo, who had one of the first Italian restaurants on Ecclesall Road (where Relish now is), whom my wife still fondly remembers for his habit of presenting each female diner with a flower.
While the themed restaurant was bouncing there is just one table occupied in the Italian Kitchen and Victoria and Simon have taken the night off.
It should have been a recipe for disaster but it wasn’t.
Waitress Lizzie makes us welcome as we looked at the décor : definitely no Artex, an aquarium set in the wall between the two rooms, and wallpaper that looks like it’s padded but is not.
“Magic wallpaper,” says Lizzie bringing the menu.
One wall is decorated with old LPs, including Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Engelbert Humperdinck, who used to appear at the Sheffield working men’s clubs as Gerry Dorsey. Who knows, he might even have had a meal at Paolo’s.
Don’t want to hear him over our tiramisu, though, and we don’t although we do get the Zombies, Food and Drink’s favourite group, so a bonus point is in order.
We begin with a pleasantly rustic Tuscan bean soup with a tomatoey base (£4.25) and if they are not exactly the borlotti beans promised by the menu the soup is certainly packed with vegetables. I love the light, airy home made focaccia studded with whole cherry tomatoes served with it.
My wife’s mussels in white wine and garlic (£6.25) are also good quality but don’t come with any bread to mop up the juices. We ask Lizzie for some and it arrives at no extra charge.
Home made appears quite a lot on the menu and the two words are written against the spinach and ricotta tortelloni (£8.70). I have sometimes found restaurants can be a bit lax on whose home, or kitchen, things are made but it is clear the four big pasta parcels on my plate come from here.
They are not particularly elegant but enjoyable all the same – and I have a second acquaintance with that big, boisterous tomato base in the sauce.
This dish comes with more bread, this time ciabatta, full of buttery garlic.
My wife had salmon in a bag with slices of orange, lemon and lime with dill (£11.95). The greaseproof bag was folded like a giant sweet wrapper: such a pity that it had already been opened so a lot of the aroma had wafted away before it got to the table.It was one of those dishes you rate as pleasant, although not the boiled potatoes which had been seriously overcooked. We also have a mixed salad for £3.
This being the only grumble all night, we wondered who the chefs might be (John Haddock and Paul Barton).
Despite being the only ones there we didn’t feel any lack of atmosphere and Lizzie made no move to hurry us.
Desserts are also home made and cost £4.50. They’re pretty good, a plum and almond tart and a first class tiramisu prompting me to write ‘elegant’ and ‘accomplished.’
In fact, the cooking has been of a good standard all round.
Victoria and the Italian Kitchen seem to be pulling out all the stops with two for the price of one early bird offers Sunday and weekdays between 5 and 7pm, a home made children’s menu and then on Sundays she and Simon explore the English bit of their Anglo-Italian heritage with traditional roasts.
We paid £43.15 for food, £8.40 for two glasses of well selected wine and £3.60 for dull coffees.
Quite a pleasant surprise.
- 349 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PF.
- Tel: 0114 266 4168.
- Open Mon- Fri 5-late, Sat-Sun from 10.30am. Sun lunch £8.95 for two courses. Credit cards. Gentle music. Vegetarian dishes, gluten-free by arrangement. Disabled access and toilets.
- Website: www.italianrestaurantsheffield.co.uk
- My star ratings (out of five):