Another in an occasional series on famous local restaurants and restaurateurs.
HE called himself the Talking Menu, I called him the Human Meatball. Pepe Scime’s reaction was to scratch his armpits in his native Sicilian gesture of disgust. But he forgave me.
With some restaurants the personality of the chef or owner is as important as the food and so it was with Pepe’s of South Road, Walkley, Sheffield, during the Eighties and early Nineties.
There was no menu, just a blackboard, and the diminutive Pepe would talk his customers through the classics, regional specialities and, sometimes, his own inventions, usually with a gag. The meatballs, he’d say, came from Liptons or, when that name faded from the High Street, from Netto. And he’d scratch an armpit.
Then he’d disappear downstairs to the kitchen leaving the dining room in the charge of his wife Pam. The kitchen was a fascinating place. Here Pepe made his own Italian sausages or air-dried his hams in the misty Walkley air long before it became fashionable.
Everybody knew Pepe. Actors appearing at the Crucible were sent there: Alan Rickman, Pam Ferris (Ma Larkin) and comedienne Ruby Wax. According to Pepe, who was rather proud of the compliment, she told him: “You are more disgusting than me!”
Pepe Scime was a character. For a year or two he sponsored the mammoth Manor Operatic Christmas panto at the City Hall, with giveaways for the children in Netto carrier bags.
I met Pepe at the high point of his career. He’d begun at a pizza parlour in the town centre (now Mama’s & Leonies) where he had met Pam. “She had the chef’s special,” he’d joke. “And look what I finished up with,” she shot back. They took over what had been Roy’s Bistro, another famous institution, in 1983.
He gave me a ring early on in my reviewing career, correctly guessing there might be a few things I needed to know about Italian cooking. Did I know, he said, that some places passed off expensive calves liver by marinating lambs’ in milk?
I joined him for the day, which began with an early morning sambucca before a visit to the wholesale market, prepping in the afternoon, watching the cooking in the evening and drunkenly trying to make gnocchi, ending 18 hours later. As I was leaning more crazily than the tower of Pisa my wife was called to take me home.
Pepe and Pam sold up in 1993 to Vito Ciarialo, his chef and latterly partner for the previous 18 months. Vito renamed the place after himself, made it his own and is still there 25 years on this year.
The couple went to Tickhill to run the I Paparazzi bar in the Red Lion but after a while returned to the city to take over Mamma Mia Pepe on Langsett Road. They were there for nine years.
He was then 60 and feeing the long years on his feet in the kitchen. He had taken his brother’s advice, an old Sicilian proverb: “Don’t squeeze the lemon twice.” At his retirement party my wife gave him a tin of meatballs.
The couple retired to Spain and we lost touch but Pepe and Pam wrote their own chapter in Sheffield’s culinary history.