Plenty of filling behind the finest of frontages
It has to be the most photogenic little restaurant in the city. Others may boast fancier frontages, superior interiors or finer food but nowhere looks quite like Mama’s and Leonies.
It’s a film set waiting to happen.
Double fronted with its shell-fringed outdoor valance, colourful trailing window boxes, dark green paintwork and art-deco livery the outside looks a picture.
Inside with the New York- style bar seats, open kitchen and eclectic wall hangings you half expect to see Tommy and Henry from Goodfellas sitting at the counter arguing.
Not that that would be a good thing.
But Mama’s and Leonies is a good thing, a good Sheffield thing, an institution in the city centre. If they haven’t already done so artists Pete Mckee and Joe Scarborough with their contrasting yet equally forensic eye for Sheffield detail should capture the essence of this lovely little restaurant in one of Sheffield’s few surviving 18th century buildings sandwiched between the incomparable Brown Bear pub and the evocative Wicker Herbalists on Norfolk Street in the heart of the city.
But is Mama’s and Leonies food, the central character in this particular scene, worthy of the set?
The food isn’t bad, far from it.
It’s not that Mama’s and Leonies offers poor service or lack of value. Far from it.
But is the unchanging adherence to that 1960s Anglo-Italian food phase now a bit lacking in modern culinary oomph and distinctive flavours? Or is that quirky English take on Italian food its precise and charming niche?
It was a quiet Tuesday evening when we went but the place is so atmospheric you could be the only person in there and still be intoxicated by its charm.
We were greeted warmly as we entered and found a table for two by the door, shielded from the draft by a protective half-wall.
Staff are all in black, warm, relaxed and attentive and continue to be as the place gets busier.
We ordered the spare ribs and garlic bread to share. The garlic flat bread is sensational, crisp edges, soft within, loaded with butter and garlic. Perfect.
The ribs are extraordinary. They are presented in a sizzling oval baking dish, bubbling with volcanic heat and containing three huge ribs and oceans of sauce.
The ribs are thick with melt-in-the-mouth meat in a sauce that could do with a bit more of a hit of something piquant.
All comforting and the first time we’ve eaten ribs with a knife and fork. A glass of the house red, a soft merlot, is very acceptable and goes down great with the ribs. My son sitting opposite is wowed by the portion size and agrees the garlic bread is as good as any he’s had.
So much so that he orders the Pizza Papa that actually lists garlic in its ingredients along with Italian sausage and mushrooms. It’s a good, loaded pizza with tons of cheese and a real garlic hit as you might expect, but it’s not a great pizza. For the other main course we shared a bubbling bowl of Ravioli Gratinati, described as ‘envelopes of pasta with savoury meats in a rich tomato and bolognese sauce topped with cheese’.
That’s exactly what we got, rich, meaty, comforting food, an old-fashioned treat.
Imagine if your grandmother had married an Italian – mine nearly did – and you regularly ate Italian meals that had been anglicised by two generations of English mums. You can feel the love for the food but it’s from a different era.
For dessert the apple pie was all gone so we ordered a fruit salad and fruit crumble with whipped Italian-style ice cream. Who can resist Italian Mr Whippy-style gelato? Not me, more comfort food from the 1960s, creamy soft and excellent. The crumble came in huge, deep cliffs of shortbread-style topping over a dark fruit filling that was very good and not too sweet. But the crumble topping was so thick it was doughy in the middle and saved only by the fruit and ice-cream.
The fruit salad was colourful, varied and very pretty and did what a fruit salad does. It was OK but again not remarkable.
Cath Hall, who owns the restaurant with hubby John, confirmed her family-style dedication to her regulars.
“Around 85 per cent of our business are regulars,” said the woman who popped in to Mamma’s and Leonies 34 years ago for a coffee, got a job as a waitress, worked her way up to being manager then bought the place 10 years ago.
“We make changes to the menu now and again but people come back because they liked what they had before.
“We have a couple who came on a first date 35 years ago and they were in again yesterday. People bring their children in and then years later their grandchildren. It’s a family place, we like that and so do our customers.”
That’s Mama’s and Leonies. If you want modern and cutting edge, go elsewhere.
For almost 47 years this charming little restaurant in a great spot has been giving its punters what they want and they keep coming back for more. As Tommy and Henry might say, we should show some respect.
For three courses, two glasses of house wine and two delicious espressos we paid £54.70.