WE HAD gathered for pre-dinner bottles of Peroni, just to get us in the mood for our Italian evening, and scrolled a little apprehensively through VeroGusto’s menu. I don’t know what the Italian for big spondulicks is but you do need a lot of them to eat here.
Dry-aged fillet of beef £31.80 and that’s without the chips. Mmmm. Pan-fried Gressingham duck breast . . . tempting but £25.50 and no spuds mentioned.
Across the table there was a passable imitation of Mount Etna erupting. “Rocket leaves with Parmesan shavings £6.50 . . . I am not paying that.”
I nodded. “We shall have to pick our way very carefully through the menu,” I said. My companion added: “I don’t mind paying high prices but I want to be blown away for it.”
As it happens we dodged the salad and the duck and we were both gastronomically blown away by some long-cooked, slow-cooked, low-cooked ox cheek.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We haven’t even got through the door of this swish little family-run Italian on Norfolk Row. It looks classy from the outside and the sight of the black waistcoated waiters within confirms it.
Expensive bottles of wine line the back of a long narrow room which once housed the town’s tourist information office but which goes back to Georgian times. This is not your average Italian ristorante.
I’ve known this restaurant across two locations and three changes of name ever since Esterina Celva and partner Bruno Saverio opened on Church Street as Gusto-Italiano.
“You should be charging more,” I told Ester back then after a lunch eating her cheerful, happy food. She and Saverio, everyone seems to call him by his surname, did just that when they moved across town, first as Gusto, then as VeroGusto, and went spectacularly upmarket.
The food is exactly like that you would hope to discover away from the tourist traps down one of the smarter streets of an Italian city. You’d come back bursting to tell your friends of your little find. Somehow finding it a few yards from a Sheffield bus stop doesn’t have quite the same glamour but it will save you the price of a plane ticket.
VeroGusto is for most people without big wallets a special occasions type of place which is why, for us, we haven’t been there for a couple of years. But tonight is my wife’s birthday and we are celebrating with friends Craig and Marie Harris, fellow foodies, Italophiles and bloggers.
I fancy portion sizes have crept up a little since our last visit. You longed for more on the plate and deep down all Sheffielders, even the swankiest, treasure Value For Money. We got it here.
Enjoying food comes on so many levels: presentation, smell, texture, flavour and afterthought – reflecting with satisfaction on what you have experienced.
My starter of polipo (£11.95), octopus, would have been the price of a main in many cases. It looked good. The firm meaty flesh was cooked to perfection with a tang of the sea and, as Craig remarked, with just a touch of the grill.
It came with chicory, the biggest pine nuts I have seen, olives and sultanas and a sort of pretzel, a tarollo Napoletano, which I had not previously encountered, rather like a hard biscuit.
Birthday Girl’s fritto misto (£13.85) was squid, prawns and courgette flowers in the wispiest of batter, more negligee than Winceyette pyjamas.
Saverio, now sporting a lockdown beard, had read out some specials including one I liked the sound of, ox cheek with creamed potatoes. Now that’s what caught my attention because at that point I was going for the duck but was mentally grumbling I’d have to pay extra for spuds.
I asked the price. Why don’t restaurants give it automatically when they’re reading out specials? People don’t like to ask but what else do you buy without knowing the cost? I don’t have the bill now but it was cheaper than the duck so I ordered it. Craig must have had the same thought processes and did, too.
It was wonderful. The meat had held together but the texture was so soft and tender you could have sucked it up through a straw. And the sauce, a reduction of wine and the bed of vegetables the meat had sat upon, finished with just a hint of sweetness.
It’s a dish you’ll find on many a Modern British menu but you’ll have to look hard to find better. And the mash? Silky, smooth, luxurious. It came with a Parmesan tuille which always scores an extra point with me.
Marie was clucking happily over her house lasagne (£15.95) “So many layers,” while my wife enjoyed her taglierini pasta with monkfish (£17.50). I hoped neither of them noticed we men had the more expensive dishes.
As you might expect, wines are pricy here but we managed to find a bouncy bottle of Primitivo for about the price of the ox cheek.
We left happy if lighter of wallet. Ester, who has managed to bring up two delightful children while cooking so brilliantly in the kitchen, and front of house Saverio give the city centre restaurant scene a much needed touch of class.
And to think, when at Church Street they were thinking of packing it in until a rave restaurant review turned their fortunes around.