SOME restaurants are like people you’ve lost touch with. You know where they are, you like them but, somehow, you never get round to saying hello again. And so it was with us and Vito’s on South Road, Walkey.
“We’re off there tonight,” says my wife in the greengrocers as she pays the bill. “Used to be Pepe’s, run by Pepe Scime,” I add, picking up the bags.
“And before that Roy’s Bistro,” says a woman behind us. “It had a chandelier in the hall.” Gosh, she’s got a good culinary memory. It was one of Sheffield’s earliest restaurants of note. In fact between them Roy, Pepe and Vito have forged some gastro history at this little restaurant at the corner with Industry Street.
Roy’s I never went to (although I did its successor, the Four Lanes at Hillsborough). Pepe’s was my introduction to Italian food, lively, boisterous, exciting, and, well, 100pc Pepe, until he sold up in 1993 to his chef and business partner, Vito Ciaraolo. He’s been there 26 years, longer than both his predecessors put together. And it has gone decidedly upmarket.
“Minty,” says one of my friends, studying the menu before we go. With antipasti such as fried ravioli with with rocket and stracchino for £10.90 or main course lamb with prunes for fivepence shy of 20 quid it is easy to push the barca out here.
If you want to create an impression order the beef, usually Fassone from Piedmont or Chianina from Tuscany. Fillet with gorgonzola is £25.95. A bigger splash? The specials board offers Chianina fillet at £90 for two.
You can tread more carefully. Cheaper dishes are available. They even do pizzas although these are classier than most, perhaps topped with ndjua (Calabrian salami paste) or black truffle – Vito makes regular appearances in The Star with his latest fungal acquisition.
He’s even appeared on the telly, as the menu reminds you. He was an extra in the first episode of Peaky Blinders. There’s a picture of him. Very mafiosi.
We’re on the town with food blogger and Italophile Craig Harris and his wife Marie and it’s their first visit.
So Vito’s is going-on posh yet its owner hasn’t completely shaken off the old Sheffield-Italian image: ceiling and walls are still partly Artex and a whopper of a pepper mill is still produced at the table.
There’s nothing Sheffield-Italian about the food. It’s authentic. One mouthful of Marie’s spaghetti carbonara (£7.20), done the proper way with guanciale, eggs and pecorino and absolutely no cream thank you very much took her back on holiday in Minori – springy pasta, creamy sauce.
Even something as simple as my Sicilian starter, grilled aubergine with marinated anchovies and olives (£9.95), shone brightly. The aubergine took on a meaty texture, the white anchovies were first class and so were the olives.
Just a few highlights: Craig’s agnello alle prugne, lamb with prunes, sounded as if the spicing had been recently unloaded off an Arab dhow, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, garlic, almond, olive oil and honey. The meat was ultra-tender, the flavour exquisite.
My main course lobster ravioli (£14.95) was heavenly, an eggy pasta surrounding a very generous filling with prawns which tasted really luxorious. Vito freely admits he buys these in directly from Italy. This prompted a round table discussion on the merits of doing so.
My wife’s merluzzo Fiorentina (£18.95), firm, tasty cod in a spinach, cream and almond sauce, also bore the hallmarks of this restaurant’s kitchen: accurate, precise, unfussy cooking, letting first class ingredients take centre stage. That’s always the intention but it’s not always the case, is it?
Vito, who reminds me it was 17 years since I was last there, writing a review, at the same time as his wife was giving birth to his daughter, operates the kitchen midweek and is front of house at weekends.
Originally the arrangement was to buy half the business and the rest over four years. The deal went belly up and he needed to find the money quickly. “Somehow we managed.”
He hadn’t intended to stay more than a couple of years. Now, aged 56 and originally from Potenza, he’s been there almost half his life. Business is good but “it’s gone down with Brexit. People don’t want to spend.”
But some obviously do otherwise that chianina wouldn’t have been on the specials board.
To sum up, the atmosphere was warm, the service expertly pleasant and the food was great. The kitchen didn’t put a foot wrong. The bill? Well, we splashed out that Saturday evening. You’ll have gathered we liked it.
And I bet you saw the headline coming halfway through this piece . . . Peaky’s Vito plays a blinder!
Vito’s is at 284 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 233 3574. Web: http://www.vitos.org.uk