Cefalu, photo by Emma Wells

Casanova: A taste of Sicily in the heart of Crookes, Sheffield

Sheffield Unchained contributor, Emma Wells discovers a personal connection with independent Sheffield restaurant, Casanova, and meets with Sicilian owner, Salvo Ilardi, to find out more.

I’ve been to Casanova restaurant in Crookes a few times over the years since I’ve lived in Sheffield. Yet it wasn’t until I went with my partner last month and we sat below a picture of a beautiful Sicilian village, that I started to learn that Casanova is a bit different.

We visited Sicily on holiday last year and just happened to stay in the village in the photograph; Cefalù. When I asked the waiter about the picture, it transpired that Casanova’s owner, Salvo Ilardi, hails from Cefalù. We ended up talking to Salvo and his partner, Angie, at length about how wonderful Sicily is and we were left with a longing to return to the island.

‘In England everything is simple’

Later on, I meet with Salvo to find out more about the restaurant and how it all began. Salvo welcomes me in and offers me a drink. We sit down and I order a glass of white wine and the Tortiglioni Spada e Melenzane; a pasta dish with swordfish, aubergine, garlic, tomato and fresh mint.

We chat a little about Cefalù, which Salvo describes as:

A really beautiful little village near Palermo, very old fashioned and absolutely gorgeous.

Cefalù used to be a fishing village and is, in Salvo’s words, ‘one of the gems of Sicily’, having beautiful natural surroundings, a mild climate and plenty of fresh seafood to enjoy.

Cefalu in Sicily, photo by Emma Wells

Cefalu in Sicily, photo by Emma Wells

Salvo, now 59, came to England from Sicily in 1979 at the tender age of 18 to learn English. He arrived in London but only stayed there for 48 hours, as he didn’t like the city, and moved on to spend six months in Chorley, Lancashire. One night he travelled from Chorley to visit friends in Sheffield – and literally never went back.

I left all my clothes there and everything. I was 18 years old, a young man, you can do a silly thing – come overnight and end up staying, I got a job straight away, and refurbished my wardrobe!

Salvo considers Sheffield his home and he wouldn’t consider moving back to Cefalù.

Sicily is great, I go on holiday and I love it, but the bureaucracy is terrible. When you live in England everything is simple, you need to see the doctor, you go. In Italy, if you go to the bank, one hour queuing, everything stamped 6 times, at the post office you have to queue all morning.

Salvo particularly likes how friendly Sheffield is and he says of Crookes:

Life in a village, it’s great. Local people acknowledge you, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been or not been [to the restaurant].

‘You buy the best to put in your tummy’

I ask Salvo what gave him his passion for the restaurant trade and he tells me he has been in catering since he was 10, when he had a summer job serving drinks back in Cefalù.

Salvo was determined to work for himself and he opened his first restaurant in Skipton, near Leeds, at the relatively young age of 27. He was there for six years, returning to Sheffield in 1986 and working at an Italian restaurant in Meadowhall. However, the quality of food at the restaurant was not to his standard, and he left to be his own boss again. He has been running Casanova for the past 18 years.

Casanova Resturant in Crookes, Sheffield, photo by Emma Wells

Casanova Resturant in Crookes, Sheffield, photo by Emma Wells

On his approach to food, Salvo says:

I’ve always been of the mentality that you buy the best to put in your tummy, you don’t buy the cheapest to put in your stomach, you can buy cheap clothes if you want, but not anything you put in your stomach, you want decent quality.

I ask Salvo how he ensures that the quality of the food at Casanova is of the standard he expects:

We don’t believe in microwaves, we don’t use frozen food, yes there are some ingredients you have to buy fresh and freeze for the duration, like fresh fish, but at least we know it’s fresh.

The only thing the restaurant buys in frozen is prawns and Salvo makes sure these are the best quality, a good size and texture. As much of the produce as possible is bought locally, Salvo says:

I pay more but I know it’s fresh and good quality.

Casanova’s vegetables come from independent fruit and veg shop, Just Natural, across the road, and their fish comes from a Sheffield-based wholesaler.

Sicilian specialities

I ask Salvo what is particularly different about Sicilian food and he explains that Italy is very regional when it comes to food, and each region has its specialities.

In Sicily, a lot of dishes are made with aubergine, which is in season for six months of the year. However Sicilian aubergines are different to the aubergines we are familiar with, and they are not available here. Salvo describes them as pale blue/purple and round, and when you slice them:

It is like cutting a steak, you can do so many beautiful dishes with it.

Fish dishes are also plentiful in Sicily, but it is very difficult to buy the right fish in England, outside of London. Salvo tells me that he likes to stick to Sicilian food where possible, but that the dishes have to suit the English palate too. In Italy, pasta dishes are served much drier, but here people like to have more sauce. In Salvo’s opinion:

It does spoil the food a little bit, because in a sense, the drier it is, the more flavour.

Salvo’s favourite dish on the menu is the Pasta al Taianu which is a traditional dish from Cefalù, with frayed beef and aubergines in a tomato sauce, with Pecorino cheese.

I decide to opt for a traditional Sicilian dessert to follow my delicious pasta course, and I pick the Cannola, (a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry filled with sweet ricotta) which I it enjoy very much.

Salvo advises me to eat it with my fingers rather than the cutlery I am given or it will break and I won’t get all of it. Salvo laughs as he tells me they are always eating Cannola in The Godfather films and the TV series Inspector Montalbarno (which, incidentally, he recommends watching for the footage of Sicily).


Eating together – ‘the best part of the day’

The restaurant serves specials too, and on the day I visit, a regular customer has brought in some fish which he caught in Whitby. Two of the chefs (both called Giuseppe) are busy preparing a fish soup with it, and when I have finished my dessert, Salvo invites me into the kitchen to see them in action.

The soup smells delicious, and the prawns that will also be going into the dish certainly appear to meet Salvo’s quality standards. I consider whether I will need to come back later for a second dinner!

Casanova kitchen, photo by Emma Wells

Casanova kitchen, photo by Emma Wells

I ask Salvo about the staff who work for him, and he tells me that the first and third chefs are Sardinian, and the second chef is Sicilian. Most of the waiting staff are Sicilian too, some staying for two or three years and then moving on. Salvo said that in Italy catering is seen as more of a profession than in the UK.

As I finish my meal with a good strong coffee, Salvo chats to me about the values of Italian society and tells me how important the tradition of eating with your family every night is. He says:

When you eat it’s not just food, it’s a way to get everyone together, the family unit. You laugh, joke, it’s the best part of the day.