When I was writing my food reviews for the Sheffield Star more than one restaurateur told me about diners who always ordered the same thing, month in, month out. I was a little scornful at this failure to try pastures new.
But the wife and I are guilty of just that when it comes to eating at the Bella Napoli on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield. I always have the ribs followed by the pizza Napolitana with extra anchovies, my wife has mushrooms and then the spag bol.
There is a very good reason. The ribs (£6.50) cooked up by chef-patron Nancy Dallagiovanna are the best in Sheffield, very possibly the finest in Britain and, who knows? the world. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration but you gather I’m enthusiastic.
It is not just me who thinks this. They are the most frequently ordered dish at this tiny little 26-seater eaterie that takes up so small a section of the streetfront that even people who live nearby have failed to notice it. Drive by in the car or on the bus, blink and it’s gone.
Now by rights there should be a queue of rib-seeking customers (mainly men but not always) queuing out the door but the world is not like that so I shall have to tell you about them. I was in the other day and inquired if ribs were available. They were. They almost always are.
Nancy brings me the dish herself. She’s only just finished making them and says they always taste better the next day. I can’t wait that long because I am excited about getting my teeth into them.
But I have to wait a bit for the dish, which is as hot as a nuclear reactor, to cool down slightly or I’ll burn my mouth. I dip a little garlic bread into the sauce while I’m waiting.
The ribs are not a thing of beauty as you can see from the picture but that doesn’t matter. The taste is not particularly sophisticated but who cares? They bring instant and utter reward to a carnivore. They are meaty, with bits charred and caramelised, dunked in a rich and syrupy sweet-sour sauce. Those with delicate, fastidious tastes and eating habits may want to look away now.
Eating them is an intense, visceral, back-to-your-caveman-roots experience. I start as politely as I can with knife and fork but as the ribs cool I pick them up by hand. Oh the feeling as my teeth sink into the meat and slide along the bone, gently gnawing away! And they taste good, too. All too often restaurants serve up ribs which taste of nothing (or cardboard) and rely on the sauce to deliver the goods.
The barbecue sauce at Bella Napoli is the crowning glory of this dish. I’ve asked her what is in it but she won’t say. Tomato and sugar (or is it honey?), a little vinegar (or is that lemon?), a touch of fennel or aniseed . . . Nancy is not letting on. And why should she? It’s been the making of this little restaurant.
I’ve finished after burning my tongue and getting sauce dripping inelegantly from the corners of my mouth and I’m licking my fingers before dipping them into the finger bowl provided. There is no elegant way of eating spare ribs. On a good day you get segments of garlic bread to mop up the sauce rather than slices of baguette.
Nancy, from Venezuela, has run the restaurant for 13 years. Previously she and husband Vincenzo (whose recipe it is) previously had a place on London Road so the family has been cooking for the Sheffield public for over 25 years.
Bella Napoli is quirky. The red and white walls feature wall paintings of the Coliseum and a worried looking Roman centurion and photographs of Venice but nothing of Naples. You can bring your own wine (£1.50 corkage) but must pay by cash or cheque. In the week you can order off a separate menu, as my wife did, and get two courses for £10.95. But there’s a catch: it doesn’t include the ribs.
You may even have seen the Bella Napoli and Nancy herself (quite an actress) doing a spoof sketch for ITV’s This Morning claiming that Italian chef Gino D’Acampo is actually from Sheffield and learned his trade at the Bella Napoli. Log on to the restaurant’s website and watch it yourself. Then go and have some ribs.
367 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7 1FS. Tel: 0114 255 8367. Open Mon-Sat night. Web: http://www.bellanapolisheffield.com