YOU have to duck under a washing line of pink cycling vests to enter a small back room. One wall is plastered with pages from Italian sporting papers, the ceiling looks as if it is going to fall down any minute and old coffee sacks are curtains at the window.
There are three long benches, seating six at a friendly pinch, and some high stools. On the back wall, on the way to the toilet, is a cartoon of a cardinal wth a speech bubble saying “Holy cannoli,” a slogan copied on waiting staff shirts. This place looks like fun.
Food arrives on white tin camping plates with blue rims placed on brown paper serving mats, bread is deliivered in brown paper bags and hot coffee in glasses without a handle.
There’s music playing, happy chatter and a waiter in a flat cap is bringing round a tray of cakes to tempt you with that coffee. One thing North Town has got in bucketfuls is atmosphere.
We’ve all heard or dreamed about such places, maybe even been to one, tucked away down some unassuming back street in a hot Italian town or city, and come back with travellers tales of great nights out.
But you don’t have to go as far as Naples or Milan. There’s one on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield.
The oddly named North Town (don’t ask, it’s a long story, about taking over a previous business, even odder because the last thing it sounds is Italian and it’s on the south side of town), opened up pre-pandemic but I’ve only just got round to visiting. Silly me.
It’s the concept of Gian Bohan, one half of the gastro duo with Maurizio Mori who brought us Nonna’s on Ecclesall Road, who wanted to recreate that experience. “You can find them down little out of the way streets,” he says.
This time his partner is Pasquale Pollio,the chap in the hat, and we meet him twice, once at lunchtime and then again when we return for a more substantial tea.
The decor looks spot on – minimum money spent for the maximum effect, including the ceiling. “that’s how we found it when redecorating. This is used to be a guitar shop,” adds Gian.
The heart of North Town is its bakery, which powers much of the menu. mainly ciabattas for a range of sandwiches, to eat in or take away, as well as a Puglian rosemary and rock salt bread. “We bake three, sometimes four times a day,” says Pasquale.
There are pizzas, of course, but the ovens are so busy baking the breads they are available only at certain times.
At lunch we have a meatball panino (£7.50) and a classico – prosciutto, tomato and mozzarella (£6), both excellent, generous and tasty. The meat is lamb with preserved lemon, mint, chilli and ground almond for extra flavour, and it comes with melted taleggio.
We come back on St Patrick’s Day, wondering whether Gian will be sporting a shamrock (he is half-Irish, once running an Irish cafe further up the road nearer town) but he’s away in New York.
This time we’re here for the pasta: a gutsy lasagne (£9.50) with a ragu of pork, beef and sausage, and paccheri scoglio (£12), pasta with seafood, the mere mention of which makes our waitress screw up her face with delight. I expect she does this with all the dishes but she’s right.
The pasta, thick, slightly rubbery rings, are partnered with mussels and clams and finished with pangrattato, basically fried herby garlic breadcrumbs as an Italian ‘poverty kitchen’ subsitute for pesto because the parmesan was too expensive. It’s so convincing I have to tell myself it’s not the real thing.
It’s this and the broth, which I soaked up with a saved slice of bread (although they provide a spoon) which helps makes this dish for while the clams are good the mussels are nothing to write home about.
The cannoli certainly are. Even if you didn’t know you could tell they weren’t made in a factory: crisper, irregular and generously filled. Coupled with a glass of hot coffee you can’t go wrong. This place is right up my street.
North Town re-opens on Wednesday after a short holiday. Normal opening, Wed-Sun.
North Town is at 699 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7. Tel: 0114 255 1242. web http://www.northtown.store