THERE’S more than a hint of fairy tale about Marina Whitwam’s story.
It begins with a waitress and a humble sous chef and ends with them buying the boss’s restaurant and walking off into the sunset.
It is nearly a year since Marina and her fiancé Ryan Christian took over the Pasta Bar in Sharrowvale Road. In that time they have not only re-established the restaurant’s reputation, but also found time to start a family – little Lewis is now six months old.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Marina was studying business at university and took a waitressing job to pay her way. She found herself at Santino’s – then run by Toni Dente and his brother Nic – where she met fellow newcomer Ryan.
He later moved on, while Marina became manager of the Ecclesall Road eaterie, but the two became an item after working together again at a new restaurant in Ecclesfield.
When Toni Dente came up with the idea for the Pasta Bar in 2003, he asked Marina to manage it – and the stage was finally set when Ryan joined the team two years ago.
At the end of last year Toni decided to sell up and the couple took the plunge.
“It was either buy our own restaurant or come out of the trade,” says Marina. “Besides, I’d been there for so long that it felt like mine anyway.”
The move has proved popular with both locals and staff. “Everybody knows everyone in this area and a lot of customers came back when they found out we’d taken over. We’ve also got a lot of the old Santino’s team.”
Apart from that, the Pasta Bar has changed little since it first opened eight years ago.
The idea was simple: to serve up freshly-made pasta with a choice of accompaniments.
The key was an industrial machine, installed in a room above the restaurant. It churns out a daily quota of pasta in a variety of shapes – the current choice is rustica, spirale or spaghetti – which are served mix-and-match style with a range of sauces.
Since Ryan took over the kitchen the menu has also expanded to include pizzas, steaks, fresh fish and a range of daily specials.
Recent specialities have included game – potted partridge with sage chutney or roast partridge wrapped in pancetta – and trio of pork: loin chop, mini casserole and stuffed loin with pear compôte.
The added challenge of a broader menu appeals to Ryan, who trained at Castle College and has worked at numerous city restaurants. It also adds more interest for diners.
“People are quite surprised when they get here and find out what the food’s like. That’s one of the reasons we’ve expanded the choice,” says Marina.
The restaurant is pleasingly simple: tiled floor and cream walls, with paintings in chunky wooden frames and an exposed brick bar at the far end.
Black marble table tops, flecked with silver, provide a touch of drama that’s echoed by bold red salt and pepper grinders.
We choose a table in the window and settle down for a midweek catch-up with Daughter Number One. The Pasta Bar has a buy-one, get-one-free offer on Tuesdays and Sunday evenings, so it’s the perfect place for a get-together.
The wine list offers a good range of old and new world wines, all under £20.
We share a bottle of house red: an earthy Italian zinfandel negroamaro at £11.50 (£3.25 per glass).
The autumn and winter menu has just been launched, with plenty of tasty comfort food for a dank, dismal evening.
We kick off with a representative selection of antipasti: soup, bruschetta and calamari.
Soup of the day is an unusual carrot and rosemary combination but it’s seriously good: a thick, tasty purée with a wedge of crusty herb-infused bread.
Also from the fixed price menu is the bruschetta: a bit crunchy but piled high with chunks of sweet tomato, creamy mozzarella and chopped basil.
And finally, calamari: rings of tender baby squid in a nice light batter, not too oily, with a wonderful chilli-spiked salsa.
The man and I are sharing the BOGOF deal: he goes for spirale in a good, rich traditional ragu sauce, while I plump (all too literally) for funghi.
It’s a magically simple feast of perfectly al dente pasta tossed with sliced mushrooms, herbs, rocket, a touch of lemon and olive oil, and parmesan shavings. Squisito!
Meanwhile DNO is enthusing over juicy gamberoni (king prawns), with garlic, chilli and more delicious pasta – spaghetti this time – finished with tomato sauce and rocket.
And there’s more… We could have finished with puddings (all £3.95) of ice cream, tiramisu, crumble, crème brûlée or affogato (a scoop of ice cream ‘drowned’ in hot espresso).
But we’re comfortably replete and make do instead with cups of very good coffee.
Dinner for three, including wine, is £47.85.
lVerdict: Fresh, simple and in the best possible taste – with home-cooked food to match.
lOpen: Tuesday-Thursday 5-10pm, Friday-Sunday noon-10pm.
lThe Pasta Bar, 270 Sharrowvale Road, Sheffield. (0114) 268 0505.