WHAT is it about Italian hospitality? Maybe the familiar welcome, maybe the gastronomic enthusiasm, but certainly the little glasses of liqueur that are handed out, free of charge, at the end of a meal.
La Dolce Vita is one such place. A new family restaurant, brimming with buonumore, eager diners and the smell of good cooking.
Actually, the policy is bring your own when it comes to alcohol but that doesn’t stop them from handing out the customary digestivo of limoncello, amaretto or grappa.
The locals have clearly taken it to heart. Occupying the space vacated by A’Villa Caruso in Crosspool’s Sandy-gate Lane, the restaurant is fairly buzzing on a Tuesday evening, with not a seat to be had in the house.
“We’re absolutely overwhelmed,” says Nirvana Bloor, who shares front-of-house duties with husband Matthew.
“The business had been a bit run down when we took over but from the first week onwards we were fully booked, mainly with local people.”
La Dolce Vita is the realisation of a long-held dream for Nirvana and her family, who come from Tuscany – where her sister still runs a restaurant.
Nirvana, a physiotherapist, met IT project manager Matt in Italy and moved with him to Sheffield in 1996.
Her mother, chef Luciana Tonarelli, later joined them and would help out with cooking at the A’Villa Caruso. But she always dreamed of opening her own restaurant, like the one she had in Italy.
Her chance came when son Gianpaolo, a pastry chef, sold his business and agreed to help set up a family business. When the A’Villa site became free, it was the perfect opportunity.
Once they had settled on a name, the theme of the restaurant became obvious.
“La Dolce Vita is a well-known film and we wanted to go back to the 1960s,” says Nirvana.
So floorboards are painted black and crisp white walls are hung with big monochrome stills of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni frolicking in the Trevi Fountain.
There are sixties-inspired globe pendant lights, assorted retro chairs and even a transistor radio and an old Dansette record player to add a touch of authenticity.
We arrive in the nick of time to secure the last available table. We haven’t remembered to bring our own (corkage £2), but a waitress brings us a big jug of iced water. There’s also Italian lemonade or chinotto for those who prefer it.
That legendary hospitality is brought to play again in the shape of nibbles – squares of salty, rosemary-infused foccacia and a bowl of spicy green and black olives – to keep us going until our meals arrive.
The menu is lengthy, with half-a-dozen antipasti and secondi, various pasta dishes and salads, as well as more than a page of pizzas.
It all sounds very authentic, which it should do: basic produce is local but special ingredients, including a lighter cream, are imported from Italy.
Most of the starters are served cold. Marinated anchovies have a good firm texture and a wonderfully intense flavour, enhanced by garlic and coarse salt – nothing like the oily tinned version or, worse still, pickled. They come with a token salad and ciabatta.
Bresaola con rucola features slices of distinctive Italian cured beef, lean and tender, with shavings of parmesan and peppery rocket. Mounds of it.
There’s supposed to be a lemon dressing but it seems to be missing and maybe that’s just as well – the flavour is so delicate that the beef is already disappointingly overpowered.
Service is good. Our waitress whisks away the plates and replenishes the jug of water before we’ve even finished it.
Bypassing the A-Z of pizzas, we turn to secondi of turkey escalopes and freshly-made pasta.
The escalopes are pretty bland but, to be fair, turkey is. They’re cooked in a white wine sauce which is a tad acidic but otherwise tasty and come with grilled vegetables – long-cut courgettes and peppers – and roast potatoes which, curiously, have been diced. Maybe it’s a Tuscan thing!
My pennette looks remarkably like regular penne to me but is raised above the ordinary by the sauce. It’s tempting to stick to the usual tried-and-tested combinations with salmon but this is hot-smoked and tossed with a light, creamy sauce that has a definite chilli kick – and it works beautifully.
Portions aren’t huge, so we both have room for dessert. There’s a good choice, all home-made.
I go for pannacotta: a pretty fair test of a chef’s ability. This one’s good, deliciously thick and creamy, topped with tangy summer berries in sweet, fruity syrup.
My companion is equally enthusiastic about his chocolate roulade: warm vanilla sponge rolled around a chocolate cream filling and topped with chocolate sauce.
We finish our meal with excellent americano coffee and hot milk.
And, just when we thought it was all over, here come those little glasses of complimentary grappa and amaretto – fiery, sweet and the perfect way to round off a meal.
Three-course dinner for two, excluding service, is £41.50.
lNeighbourhood ristorante and pizzeria with a warm welcome and a good vibe.
lOpen: Monday-Saturday, 5-11.30pm
lLa Dolce Vita, Sandygate Lane, Crosspool, Sheffield. (0114) 266 9811.