Chef’s Dish: Lesley Draper talks to Nonna’s Ross Sayles

Ross Sayles - head chef, Nonna's, Ecclesall Road
Ross Sayles - head chef, Nonna's, Ecclesall Road

Nonnas has undergone more than a few changes since it first set the standard on Ecclesall Road back in 1996...

Over the years the restaurant has grown in reputation as well as size – it has just been voted the best business of its kind at the national Italian Awards, attracting customers such as actor-director Sylvester Stallone.

Owner Maurizio Mori with footballers David Hirst (left) and David Holdsworth (right) on the refurbished terrazzo at Nonnas

Owner Maurizio Mori with footballers David Hirst (left) and David Holdsworth (right) on the refurbished terrazzo at Nonnas

Latest changes have included a major refurb, with al fresco terrazzo.

But one thing has remained a firm favourite throughout – the lasagne!

Responsibility for ensuring the dish is as good as ever lies with new head chef Ross Sayles and his team.

Ross brings his own touch of entertainment-style glitz to Nonnas: “I previously managed the kitchen operation at Sheffield Theatres, where we regularly cooked for actors and visiting sports stars who were in the city to play or attend the World Snooker Championships,” he says.

Lasagne, a perennial favourite at Nonna's, Ecclesall Road

Lasagne, a perennial favourite at Nonna's, Ecclesall Road

“They were all different, but few were more down to earth than actress Joanna Lumley, who always ate with the rest of the staff and appreciated our cooking.”

Ross joined the Nonnas team in 2009 and became head chef a few months ago.

His passion for cooking came from his mum, he says. As a boy he spent many happy hours cooking with her – then decided to make it his career and signed up to hone his skills at Castle College.

Ross is the first to admit life is never dull at Nonnas. “There really isn’t a typical day,” he says.

“Being prepared for any eventually is the mantra for the kitchen at Nonnas – like when Sylvester Stallone turned up with his entourage.

“We were all exhausted after a very busy weekend and were about to shut. Then we got the call to say he was on his way!

“Thankfully, Maurizio Mori, the proprietor, enlisted help from members of his family and we all rallied round to make it a evening to remember.”

Nonnas is passionate about ensuring the food it serves is representative of Tuscany, where the founders originated – as Ross discovered: “So much so that Maurizio took me over to spend some time in their Casa De Nona holiday residence in Tuscany, to further my knowledge of the culture and cuisine,” he says.

“I truly feel like one of the family now – and I cook well enough to pass as one, so I’m told!”

Nonnas lasagne is slightly different to the average British version of the dish, he says: “It’s generally drier. But it’s with a taste and texture to die for.”

Ross is sharing the recipe so cooks can try it for themselves.

Nonna’s Lasagne:

INGREDIENTS:

2kg of beef mince

2kg of pork mince

Fresh lasagne pasta sheets

SOFFRITTO

2 onions

2 sticks of celery

2 carrots

4 cloves of crushed garlic

100g chopped marjoram

250g chopped pancetta

1/2 bottle of white wine

1/2 l milk

2l sugo or passata

2 grated nutmegs

BESCIAMELLA

1.2l milk

60g plain flour

2 fresh bay leaves

1/2 grated nutmeg

60g unsalted butter

1 onion

2 cloves

Salt and pepper

METHOD:

RAGU

In a heavy saucepan seal mince in olive oil until golden brown, strain off the excess oil; remove and set to one side.

Pour white wine into a heavy saucepan to release the meaty flavours. Boil to reduce by half.

In a separate pan sweat the soffritto, garlic, marjoram, and pancetta until soft.

Add the mince and soffritto together with the other wet ingredients, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Bring to the boil, turn to simmer and cook out for 2-3 hours skimming the pot regularly

BESCIAMELLA

Place the milk, onion, nutmeg, clove and bay leaf in a heavy bottomed pan and gently bring to the boil. Set aside.

In a separate pan, melt the butter and then add the flour, stir briskly until a paste is formed.

Add the milk mix to the butter mix, a quarter at a time, stirring continuously to beat out any lumps. When all the milk is added, turn down gas to simmer and cook for a further 2-3 minutes, producing a glossy sauce.

TO ASSEMBLE:

Ladle a thin layer of besciamella on a large square, deep oven tray and layer on pasta sheets to cover. Sprinkle with parmesan. Add a layer of ragu, then more pasta and repeat, sprinkling with parmesan. Finally, cover with besciamella, sprinkle with parmesan and bake at 180ºC for 30-45 minutes until crispy on top and the pasta is cooked.