The restaurant behind her is brimming and bustling, but Monica Caravello allows herself a moment to smile as she remembers her holiday to England that turned into a new life.
The 45-year-old arrived in the Steel City in 1995 from her native Palermo, Italy, after spells around Europe in Spain and Germany. But she saw Sheffield, and fell in love.
“I came here in 1995,” she reveals, “on a holiday that has so far lasted 25 years!
“I loved it straightaway, in England, and there’s something about Sheffield that makes it home, even though I’ve lived and worked all over.
“It’s certainly not the weather that persuaded me to stay - although when I do go back to Italy, I suffer myself, thinking it’s too hot.
“So maybe some of England, and Sheffield, has rubbed off on me as well.”
Monica talks to us at the bar at the front of Bella Donna, one of two restaurants she owns with business partner Katrina Hammond. The place is packed, owing as much to its popularity as its size; Bella Donna, on Sharrowvale Road, is compact, at least compared to the other, in Renishaw.
And it’s probably just as well, as far as Monica is concerned. When we visit, on a cold, windy and thoroughly miserable Friday evening, she’s two members of staff down and is bracing herself for a rare stint at the front of house, rather than her usual position in the kitchen.
It’s the first thing that catches my eye, too, with the narrow set-up of the restaurant almost directing diners’ wandering minds towards where the magic happens.
A large opening allows punters to see exactly what’s going on in there - a novelty for us and, one imagines, a nightmare for the chefs, especially later on when there’s a large crash of plates. Bella Donna opened in the summer - “June 7,” Katrina tells us with the look of someone who will never forget the date - and took the place of the popular La Terrazza, with some of the interior surviving the transition.
Decor is fresh and modern, rather unlike some Italians that sometimes appear dark and cramped, without losing any authenticity from Monica’s homeland. There’s a charming photograph on the wall of a lady eating pasta, which I’m somehow transfixed by throughout, and a lot of wood, housing the obligatory chalkboard specials menu and staring down over marble-effect tables and tiled floors.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Bella Donna is the lack of decent phone signal which, either by accident or design, preserves the art of conversation somewhat. And it works; by the end of the night, as the restaurant fills up, it’s loud.
A group of friends starting their evening meet up on the table next to the bar, while an elderly couple cap theirs off with a bottle of wine next to us. Friday night. Good food, good wine, good company. A moment to count blessings.
Conscious of counting calories and cash also, though, we elect to skip starters - resisting a delicious-sounding calamari - and plump for those two classic Italian dishes, steak and pork. When in Rome, as they say. When not, have what you fancy. Monica dealt with Natalie’s change of heart from the linguine to the steak without fuss. When the grilled fillet steak arrived, it was cooked rare as requested. Too rare, one cut into it showed. It went back with apologies from Natalie, and returned with a smile from Monica. A nice touch.
No such issues with my main; maiale al porto, which is advertised as “pork escalopes, pan fried with mushrooms, flambéed in port with Gorgonzola and a touch of cream.”
It came absolutely smothered in the sauce and after ploughing through to find the meat, the combination was excellent; the two elements complementing each other excellently.
The steak received similarly positive feedback in between mouthfuls, although asking for guidance on how each steak is best cooked is recommended to avoid sending it back. The slab of meat that arrived looked superb, and melted in the mouth with accompanying dressed salad, fries and mushrooms of a similar high standard. Many Italian restaurants see the meats as an add-on to the pizza and pasta. Not here.
Service is quick and attentive without rushing us, and allows us time to take in our surroundings. La Terrazza was founded by Pasquale Cantelmi in 1997, two years after Monica arrived in Sheffield, and the two became friends, leading to the latter buying the place off the former in June.
“We’ve found it okay so far,” Monica smiles.
“We loved Sharrowvale Road and the community, so we took it straight away. It’s just about spreading the word now. Some people who went to the old place disappeared for a few months and are now coming back.”
It’s a fair bet that they’ll stay, too. The only downside was Natalie’s tiramisu - who’s counting calories after all? - which is popular in Italy and even more popular in our household.
But here, it missed the spot a little, with too much coffee making the sponge a tad soggy. A little disappointing, mused the expert, especially given its billing on the menu as everyone’s favourite.
As for the brownie; wow. There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the beauty of the most simple of desserts that often doesn’t live up to the billing. So here’s an Italian one, to sum up Bella Donna’s effort. Magnifico.
In all, we paid £55 for a main and dessert each, plus two soft drinks and two glasses of wine. Monica looks ready for a rest. We ask if there’s any plans for a third Bella Donna. She smiles.
“We’re not a chain, but you never know,” she admits, pointing to the burns on her forearms from a spell in the kitchen.
“I like to stay hands-on; set the menus because I’ve seen it from both sides.”
With that, we’re off into the icy Sheffield night and Monica’s back to business covering for her two missing staff. She laughs and tells us her sister, visiting from Italy, has been roped in to help and is in the kitchen, washing up.
Maybe it’s the start of something. Sometimes, the briefest of holidays can lead to a new life altogether.
n Bella Donna, 0114 268 5150. Open Wed-Sun.