Peaky’s Vito plays a blinder!

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Long service: Boss Vito Ciaraolo

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.

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Lobster ravioli

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.

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The specials board

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
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Pepe the Human Meatball

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Pepe, left, and Pam when they sold to Vito

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.

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Good Lord, she’s got chips on her pizza

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Fat lass eats a chip pizza on Lake Garda

I HAVE an uneasy relationship with the pizza, very possibly the world’s most ubiquitous – and abused – street food. It’s everywhere and usually not very well done. Every other new eaterie which has opened up in Sheffield in recent years seems to sell pizzas. Or burgers. Or both.

If I have one it has not got to be piled high with greengrocery, just a smear of tomato sauce, some mozzarella perhaps, olives and, hopefully, anchovies. But, please, not pineapple rings.

As I’m writing this a flyer has come through the door for Domino’s Chipotle Pulled Pork Pizzas. It sounds disgusting. I shall not be buying one.

I’m not long back from Italy and you expect to find them there. But not all Italians are crazy about them. Long ago when Pepe Scime ran his eponymous Italian restaurant on South Road, Walkey (now Vito’s), he would turn up his nose at the mere mention of pizzas and scratch his armpit in a Sicilian gesture of contempt.

I was reminded of Pepe when I came across the Trattoria al Commercio restaurant in Bardolino on Lake Garda. Outside was an A board in three languages. It read ‘Non facciamo pizze’ in Italian, ‘Hier machen Wier keine Pizza’ in German and ‘We don’t make pizza,’ in English. My wife and I thought this is our kind of place and it was.

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No pizzas sold here

Not everyone is as entranced by the food as we were. At the front of the menu it asks for people not to write reviews for TripAdvisor. They say things like they want pizza. But we ignored that and enjoyed the tortelloni, scallopine and a very good spin on zuppa Inglese and reviewed him anyway. And then we went back again.

The dining room, where we were, was packed full of Italians. Tourists are put in the garden room. The owner must have liked us because we ate inside both times. In fact, I visited four times, twice to book, but at the second meal he didn’t even acknowledge us. TripAdvisor thinks he’s ignorant. I think it’s just that he hasn’t got much English.

We had pizzas for lunch in a street café in Verona and another one for tea in Bardolino and on both occasions I was impressed by the quality. However, one at our hotel was pretty dire and probably came from the cash and carry.

But, as ever, we Brits can teach those Italians something about their own food. At a lakeside café I spotted a very fat English lass eating a chip pizza which she must have designed herself. I was so surprised I took a sneak picture. I thought this was the most disgusting thing I’d seen but then I didn’t know about the pulled pork pizza.

 

Time for chefs to get out of the kitchen?

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I’m a great believer on chefs doing a ‘tour of the tables’ towards the end of service when things have slowed down in the kitchen. So why did I hide in the loo when one chef was approaching my table?

It was many years ago. The meal had been awful. The chef knew I was there. I couldn’t think of anything neutral to say (I never said one thing in person and the opposite in print) so I scarpered for what must have been the longest wee in history. My wife wasn’t best pleased.

But when did you last see a chef glad handing around the tables? It is a courtesy which, if not often performed that much over the years, is done so even less now. But as so often with the hospitality industry, a little gesture which doesn’t cost anything reaps dividends in customer goodwill.

I often had chefs come to my table but it was a special trip because I had a notebook and a review would follow in The Star. Both of us wanted to get our facts right. But when I asked if they made a tour of the tables on a regular basis few did.

Some were too shy. Others had little small talk. Some said it was a waste of time because diners, being British, didn’t say what they thought. “I let my food do the talking,” said one. Another pointed out, reasonably, that chatting to customers is the province of the front of house team.

But it can’t do any harm, can it? And the classier the restaurant, the more people will want to see the chef. Foodies may have a genuine question they’d like to ask, not easily relayed via a third party. And we’re all snobs and social climbers to a degree. People, being people, like to drop into conversations later phrases such as “As chef so-and-so said to me . . .” indicating they could afford to eat at Restaurant Swanky or whatever.

And any chef worth his or her kitchen salt can use the occasion to see who their customers are, rather than peering through the kitchen door, and pick up on the little nuances of conversation on what customers like or dislike. The presence of the kitchen captain also backs up what the front of house should be doing, expressing pleasure that customers are dining with them tonight.

It doesn’t have to be high end chefs who do this (and very often isn’t). One of the best I saw was Italian Pepe Scime of Pepe’s (now Vitos) of South Road, Walkley, a born performer who regularly toured the tables with a laugh and a joke some 30 years ago.

So chefs, think about. Can you spend five minutes to get out of the kitchen? Don’t be shy. Your customers will love you for it.

Kym’s new Italian Job

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Kym and Severio

Italian restaurants are as much about the atmosphere as the food so how do you conjure that up over your takeaway pizza or cannelloni when you’re curled on the sofa in your jimjams in front of the telly?

Remember Franco’s in Crookes? The garlic bread might have been half a breadcake wiped with garlic but owner Franco D’Egido locked the door for a sing-in with an Italian version of the Wild Rover while his wife Elaine let off the balloons.

The food was much, much better at Pepe’s on South Road, Walkley, where chef Pepe Scime would leave the kitchen to provide the night’s entertainment, boast his food was from Netto and scratch his armpits theatrically to show he wasn’t being serious.

“I know,” says Kym Hall, with a sigh, remembering her family’s restaurant, Dino’s, on London Road some 20 or so years ago. “We’d be dancing on the tables and singing until 6am. But that doesn’t happen these days.”

She and her Dad Severio, a long-time city restaurateur, have just opened an Italian takeaway, Italia Uno, on Banner Cross in Sheffield. It’s not the first that does far more than pizzas: there’s Italian Express in Walkley (and they were involved in that at the start). Severio will be cooking but he’s not going to turn up on your doorstep and sing O Sole Mio.

But if the food is as good as that at the launch party you might want to switch over to Montalbano on the telly after you’ve ordered your mozzarella in carrozza and penne carbonara to complete the experience.

Barely a week or so after opening in a former kebab shop Italia Uno is already making a stir. The menu is almost dish for dish that at Walkley and looks the same as in most trattorias with all the old favourites but the cooking has a brightness and zing that brings you up sharp.

The crust on the pizzas was thin and pliable yet still offering crispness, arancini, with options of meat and veggie were lively, tasty mouthfuls while the melanzane parmigiana was a delight. Filletti di Pollo, a sort of mini Milanese, slivers of chicken breast under the crispiest of breadcrumbs, are the Italian reproach to chicken nuggets.

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It all looks tempting at Italia Uno

And if anyone had told me I’d eat a Nutella pizza I’d say pull the other one yet Severio’s version is a treat. He wears a red bandana which gives him a shiver-me-timbers piratical air. From Sorrento, he makes several trips a year back home to keep himself in touch with the cooking.

It’s early days but some of the most popular dishes are the veggie and vegan dishes, down to Kym, a vegan herself, who has been publicising the takeaway on that online community. It wasn’t always so. She was red in tooth and claw until she found herself as a cavegirl on Channel 5’s 10,000 BC show having to disassemble a dead deer.

Kym, 33, opted out after 10 days in bearskins in frozen Bulgaria but it turned her first veggie, then vegan. So much for telling the programme makers “if I get to kill the meat that I have to eat, that is what I want to go and do.”

I ask how she can reconcile her views with taking order for meatballs at the Italia Uno counter. “Saverio gets his meat from local, responsible sources,” says the woman who still weakens her beliefs every now and again for a spoonful of honey or a ‘happy egg.’ And BC for her now means Banner Cross.

The suburb seems delighted in finding Italia Uno on its doorstep. The takeaway does deliveries for a small charge but most people like to collect it themselves. Kym, in that direct way of hers, says she is surprised. “I wouldn’t if I was sitting in my pyjamas.”

Italia Union is at 955 Ecclesall Road, Banner Cross, and open from 4pm Tues-Sun. There are veggie, vegan, gluten free and under 500K dishes. Tel: 0114 453 5079. Website http://www.italiauno.co.uk

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Kym looks as if she has a bone to pick in 10,000BC