Ambience is an elusive quality, and when it comes to restaurants they either have it in spades or are sadly lacking.
Staff chatting loudly about their social lives while serving, blaring music and doors left wide open during winter are some of the most common culprits.
We’d certainly not expected any of that at Gigi’s Cucina, a new independent Italian that has just opened close to Endcliffe Park on Oakbrook Road. But neither was it expected to bowl us over in quite the way it did.
In part it was the contemporary decor, all stripped back wood, modern light fittings, crisp napkins and tiny black-and-white pictures of the head chef’s Sicilian mountain village home or family members.
In fact the exterior is so very contemporary and discreet that we drove past it, twice.
It might have been the candlelight, or the fact the hubbub of conversation could be heard rather than any music.
In combination it was like sinking into a warm bath at the end of a very hard day, a potentially lethal feeling that led to a second, excellent, bottle of pinot grigio on our own dime and a suggestion that it was a ‘lovely place to be proposed to.’
Gigi opened only two weeks ago and so far there haven’t been any nervous men on bended knees, but one imagines it is only a matter of time.
It is the first restaurant owned by Loretta Giaimo and her father, head chef Gigi.
Some diners may remember Gigi’s first post when he worked at Pizzeria Giobanni on Ecclesall Road back in the 1970s, then at other Italian restaurants, before moving down south.
His children came back to study at Sheffield and like so many graduates, decided to stay.
Lorretta, who studied law and is a county court advocate, said: “I wanted my dad to be close to me and we’ve moved him back up – he loved Sheffield so it has been the perfect solution to bring us all together and get a family restaurant.
“I’ve always loved the business, to be honest I never helped out in my dad’s restaurants, my brother did, but I loved to eat in them!
“We are trying to create a homely, authentic restaurant but without going down the clichéd route. We want to keep it authentic and not put too much on the menu that people will recognise, just fresh, local ingredients and nothing too fancy,
“Hopefully people will be able to come in and have a quick pizza and a drink, or if they want something indulgent we have that too.”
Inside is romantically dinky, with a tiny bar, open kitchen and around 10 tables – all but one of which are full on a Tuesday.
Most customers so far are said to be locals popping in rather than walking over to Ecclesall Road.
This is a take-your-coat, taste-the-wine and have-your-seat-pulled-out-for-you kind of place.
The (almost all Sicilian) staff are attentive, serving drinks speedily, but there are no complimentary nibbles to start – a bugbear when you are paying a little more than usual.
The menu does steer clear of clichés, with not a lasagna in sight.
Our delightful waiter gave us accent, as well as food tips, as we debated what to eat.
Loretta, aged 26, added: “A lot of the cooking is influenced by Sicilian cuisine because my dad grew up there – there’ll be even more when we start our specials.”
I go for mare e monti, two giant tiger prawns and button mushrooms sautéed in white wine, garlic and chilli sauce.
I’m surprised when they arrive with heads and tails still on, which makes for more work but equally extra taste.
They are firm and sweet.
A creamy tomato sauce binds together the plate and there is a real spicy kick from the chilli, making the £7.75 well worth it.
His calamari is cooked to perfection and topped with slices of roasted chillis to add another kick of heat.
Our gripe here is the length of time it took for plates to be cleared, but it was a busy evening and we wait.
They do go before mains arrive – his a sirloin steak and coda di rospa for me.
The latter is monkfish which proves so light and delicate it could dissolve on your tongue in seconds but for the slice of slightly salty Parma ham holding it together.
The bed of Sambuca sauce is so aromatic it is almost perfume-like, thick with hints of aniseed.
The whole effect is very different, he tries a forkful but it is not for everyone.
The sirloin is a whopping slab, served rare seared to a depth of a millimetre or so.
There are murmurs of ‘oh my God’ and ‘beautiful’ from across the table. Even the waiter jokes: ‘Can I have a little bit?’.
Sides of potatoes and vegetables are well seasoned and presented. Both main dishes cost £18.95.
Gigi’s 40 years in the kitchen have helped him master the tricky art of portion sizes, as two courses down there is still room for a pudding each.
They aren’t on the main menu but staff know the list.
He goes for profiteroles, and the trio of them are huge, obviously freshly baked that day, and doused in chocolate sauce.
It’s a dark, almost bitter, chocolate rather than the saccharine supermarket kind.
My lime cheesecake is sublime, from the crumbly base to the slim citrus layer on the very top.
It was £82 for the food and one bottle of wine.
Gigi’s Cucina, 139-141 Oakbrook Road