Eager for a taste of Italy, I headed down to the Sunderland restaurant to meet with Nello Russo, the country’s best Italian chef.
I could say I’m having a bit of a love affair with Italian food, but really a long-term relationship would be more accurate.
A delicious bowl of fresh pasta in a rich, comforting sauce, a thin and crispy pizza, a creamy and fragrant risotto – I really could wax lyrical all day.
So when I discovered that the best Italian chef in England was cooking up a storm in one of Sunderland’s kitchens, I thought there was no better place to learn the art of cooking (and eating) Italian.
I met with Federico Trulli and Nello Russo, the owners at Angelo’s Ristorante on the city’s West Sunniside, and, as luck would have it, I was just in time for lunch.
The eatery prides itself on being voted as one of the top 10 Italian restaurants in England, with Nello scooping the accolade as the country’s top Italian chef after impressing Aldo Zilli with his pasta and sausage dish.
But what is the secret?
“You should always try to get a good ingredient,” Federico revealed.
“For example, if the base has got to be a nice tomato sauce – if you get a good quality tomato that’s a good start.”
If you visit Angelo’s you’ll be treated to everything made from scratch – including the pasta – as well as fresh vegetables from Italy, and the best local meat and fish.
The menu is “not too strict” Federico added – and if the ingredients are in stock for what you desire, Nello or one of the other three Italian chefs will rustle it up for you.
“Everything I do is my favourite because it’s my job,” Nello added.
“We put a lot of passion into it and we work a lot of hours - so we have to love it.”
Not content with sticking to the Italian staples, Nello, Federico and the other chefs tend to change the menu every six months – to satisfy themselves, and the customers too.
They do offer the favourites of carbonara, pasta arrabiata and tiramisu – but the choice of ingredients and the “personal touch” from the chefs will transform the dish, Federico said.
“If you come here, you can guarantee you are going to get the same taste as if you went to Italy,” he added.
Not revealing his award-winning pasta recipe just yet, Nello treated me to a simple lunch of Mille Fogile di Spigola, patate e asparagi (or sea bass with potatoes and asparagus).
It was a tasty and satisfying meal – and one which took less than 15 minutes to make from scratch.
A perfect dish to make at home, the chef said, it has only four main ingredients – sea bass fillets, cherry tomatoes, asaparagus and thinly sliced potatoes.
I never would have thought that the most basic of ingredients could be transformed into the beautiful piece of lunch sitting on my plate – and that it could be done in such a short space of time.
Really (I thought as I was filling my boots), there’s no excuse not to cook like this at home, and present it with as much flourish as the chef himself.
Nello added: “The most important thing before people eat is what they see so we need to make it look good on the plate.
“There are people in Sunderland who love food and understand food and that makes me very happy.”
Mille Fogile di Spigola, patate e asparagi
Main ingredients: Two sea bass fillets, thinly sliced potato, cherry tomatoes and asparagus
Additional ingredients: Tomato pureé, olive oil, salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano
Method: Prepare a simple tomato sauce using the cherry tomatoes, tomato pureé, and garlic.
Thinly cut a potato (Nello uses a mandoline, but you can use a sharp knife) and pop a slice on top of each sea bass fillet, before baking for 10 minutes.
Boil the asparagus, then serve the dish with oregano and black pepper.
To serve like Nello: Layer the fillets, topped with potato, on top of one another before placing the asparagus on top of those.
Drizzle the tomato sauce, before adding some cracked black pepper – and done!