It’s approaching 8.30pm on a Friday evening and as dawn sets over La Luna on Ecclesall Road, head waiter Casi is panicking.
He’s just heard from his colleague that The Telegraph is in the building, have just taken delivery of their after-meal coffees and want to speak to whoever’s in charge.
He assumes there’s a problem, that we weren’t happy and want to complain. We try to reassure him. He’s wrong. And relieved.
It turns out Casi is running the place that night, in the absence of owners Marinko and Nikolina Glavina who are on holiday in their native Croatia. I muse whether a holiday is really a holiday if you still receive phone calls from journalists who enjoyed your restaurant and want to talk about it, but I digress. Anyway, Nikolina is happy to chat.
The pair are both 46, and came to Sheffield to study in 1993. Part-time jobs in Italian restaurants helped support their studies, and also ignited a passion for food; so when they graduated, they had a crack at doing it themselves.
“There are many similarities between Italian food and that of Dalmatian coast with plenty of fresh fish, meat, fresh vegetables and olive oil,” Nikolina says.
How fortunate we have been to have the most amazing customers
“We grew up around daily fresh cooking and big family meals.
“After working with Italians for several years, we have become confident that we could run our own venture. We wanted to offer the place where people could eat well and healthy. We still cook everything from fresh and to order.”
Eating well and healthy is music to the ears of my girlfriend, training hard for the Sheffield 10k in September. I’m not, so anything Italian works for me. Natalie has visited before - in large parties which La Luna seems to specialise in - which turns out to be handy, because it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place, tucked away neatly almost at the summit of Ecclesall Road.
If anything, it’s even smaller inside - although the perception is maybe distorted by three large tables for celebratory parties - and there’s a lively atmosphere, although the restaurant doesn’t seem particularly cramped - sometimes an occupational hazard for establishments of this size.
The place isn’t licensed, so it operates a bring your own policy - which understandably proves popular with punters wary of a 2-300 per cent mark up on bottles of wine, yet also avoids taking out more tables to accommodate a heaving plonk selection.
“When we first opened, bring your own was a very popular concept and that’s how it started,” Nikolina adds.
“It gives clients opportunity to bring their own specialised bottles of drinks which we may not necessarily keep on the menu, and they can pair it up with some great food.
“We thought about adding a licence to the restaurant recently, as an addition to bring your own, because we find that an increasing number of our customers are starting to ask for that option.
“It’s definitely something to consider in the near future.”
For now, though, La Luna’s content to stick to what it does best. For a small place, the restaurant was vast and wide-ranging and although classic Italian dishes were very prominent, a few items on the mains menu were alien even to these two veterans of Mediterranean cuisine.
After wrestling briefly with filetto al Dolcelatte - grilled beef fillet, topped with Dolcelatté cheese and bresaola, finished with red wine sauce - we reverted to type and plumped for Italian staples; pizza and pasta. When in Rome, right?
Natalie’s tagliatelle con gamberoni (tagliatelle with king prawns in garlic, chilli, herbs and tomato, £11.95) was well received, with the chilli in particular offering a ‘kick’ that complemented the dish excellently. The pizza, hand-stretched to order, according to the menu, was excellent; a deliciously-flavoured base which fused with generous toppings of authentic ham. I could gleefully have eaten the same again.
With wine in copious supply and a seat by the window to Ecclesall Road to enjoy, we were in no rush for desserts and Casi left us to it, rather than rushing us. By now, the restaurant was packed so it may have been more accident than design, but it made a welcome change to be left alone for a while and enjoy the surroundings.
In some ways, I mused to myself, La Luna betrays its Banner Cross surroundings; the menu at the start was laminated, a napkin placed expertly by Casi props up the longest table on the ground floor. I smile, thinking of all the places I’ve eaten at where style has overpowered substance and the food has been secondary to the surroundings.
Not here. And judging by the numbers, it’s working.
“Since coming to Sheffield we have always lived around this same area and it felt like a place we knew well,” says Nikolina.
“When this location became available we took a risk and it certainly proved to be the right decision.
“Ecclesall Road’s popularity has been growing constantly over the last 20 years that we have been in business. We quickly learned how fortunate we have been since day one to have the most amazing customers in our neighbourhood and further afield, who appreciate what we do and share in our passion for food.”
Natalie’s flourless chocolate cake received mumbled words of adulation in between mouthfuls, and what it lacked in flour it certainly made up for in taste when I pinched a bit. My strawberry cheesecake didn’t quite hit the same heights - it’s probably a strawberry lover’s dream, but beneath all the topping the cake itself was a little bland.
We exited to a cheerful wave from Casi, who was ready to uncork another bottle, crack another joke, replace another napkin.
For a shared starter and a main and dessert each, plus two soft drinks and an Irish coffee, we paid just over £40. The place, named after the moon, certainly didn’t cost the earth.
“There are times we wish we could push the walls out a bit,” laughs Nikolina.
“We wouldn’t have to refuse custom on busy nights. “On the other hand, we have great feedback from customers that being small feels more special, romantic and cosy. It allows customers to get to know our staff better and it feels like they get a more personal service.”
* La Luna, 961 Ecclesall Road, S11 8TN. 0114 2676161