The outskirts of Chesterfield on a grey and dismal morning seems an unlikely place to find la dolce vita.
But follow your nose into Lambarelli’s Italian Caffé and Pasta Bar on Chesterfield Road and you’ll be instantly transported from North Derbyshire to Southern Italy on an aromatic cloud of fresh herbs, strong coffee and sweet panettone.
It’s also the place to learn the secrets of the perfect pasta sauce from café proprietor and award-winning food producer Teresa Lambarelli.
But first, Teresa insists I meet her own food hero; her father Michele (79), who runs Chesterfield’s smallest delicatessen in a room at the back of the café.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” Teresa says with obvious pride.
“Our customers say they only have to walk into Lambarelli’s and they are on holiday in Italy.”
Michele has been dealing with queues all morning but he still has the time to share with me the secret of a long and happy life.
“Goat’s cheese,” he beams.
“And pasta. It’s very healthy if you don’t eat too much of it. Add Italian coffee, sunshine and a glass of wine and you’ll live to be one hundred.”
These days, Italian food may be one of the most popular cuisines in the UK but this was not the case in the 1960s when Michele and wife Susan decided to open a delicatessen followed, in 1975, by a pizzeria.
“In those days, I’d be cooking garlic and people used to say ‘what is that smell?’ – they didn’t like it,” Michele laughs.
“I used to slice the pizza and get them to take just a little bite. One taste and they were hooked. We used to have queues down the street. All my family helped out in the business because we were so busy.”
According to Teresa, her childhood was all about food – especially when an Italian restaurant was added to the business in 1986.
“My sisters Diane, Netta and I all had little jobs like stocking shelves in the shop, cleaning tables and serving customers – I even did my homework in the restaurant,” she laughs.
“I loved it. I was born in England but I am Italian by blood; I am passionate about the people, the sun and, most of all, the food. My mum says I was six or seven when I started asking if I could cook the Sunday lunch.”
Teresa admits she found it difficult to part from the family business even when she left school; “I became a window-dresser but I still worked at Lambarelli’s a few nights a week,” she smiles.
“I wanted a car and to buy a house and my parents had instilled in me that you have to work hard to get things – so I was happy to work two jobs. When my dad stepped back from the restaurant, I helped him run the pizza take-away.”
But Teresa had to re-think her busy life-style when her marriage broke down. Trying to work long hours – and look after her daughters Amelia and Sophia, then four and two-years-old – was impossible.
“I had to walk away completely and devote my time to the girls,” she recalls.
“Once they were both at school, I started on a beauty therapy course. One of my lecturers, Lisa Shannon, told me she would go to Lambarelli’s just to have my Bolognese. Lisa begged me to make her some pots of the sauce. She became my number one fan and, when I told her there was a gap in the market for an authentic pasta sauce, she encouraged me to set up a business from home.”
Devising sauce recipes was easy for such a natural cook; the hard part – as for any novice – was finding packaging, designing the labels and complying with all the regulations laid down by the environmental health department.
“It cost around £1,000 just to get my coal house converted into a store-room with separate hand-washing facilities,” she explained.
“But it was worth the effort as I could fit the business around the girls. It became the lifeline I needed.”
Teresa has continued to develop her range of sauces; “I learned the basics of Italian cookery from my grandma as we’d spend the six-week summer holidays in Accadia di Puglia,’ she explains.
“That region of Southern Italy is famous for simple, rustic dishes. We never put preservatives or sugar in the tomatoes as they’re already acidic and self-preserving. But cooking is more than just food – it’s family, life-style and passion and I try to put all that in my sauces.”
The sauce business was launched in 2005 – one of the first customers being the prestigious Chatsworth Farm Shop. Six years, and much critical acclaim later, Teresa was ready to expand into new premises, which led her back to Lambarelli’s.
“My sister Netta and husband Neil were trying to run the restaurant and take-away but it was too much and so the restaurant went up for sale,” she recalls.
“It was too dated to attract buyers but I realised it was ideal for my business. I transformed the floor below into a 20-seater café bar offering simple, fresh food and Italian coffee. I also modernised the upstairs restaurant and open every Saturday night.”
In the remaining hours, Teresa makes her celebrated sauces and other Italian delicacies like salad dressings, olive pastes and biscotti. The hard work has certainly paid off. Teresa was pronounced Chesterfield Food Producer of the Year in 2017 – her third such title since 2013.
“I put my success down to dedication;
I live for what I do,” she says.
“It helps that I have a great team behind me and loyal customers who come back time and time again.”
Teresa still visits Puglia as often as her hectic schedule will allow. “My grandparents have passed away but I still visit family and friends once a year,” she says.
“My eldest daughter Amelia, now 20, met her partner Biagio in Puglia when he was visiting his family. Today, they live in Rome. As a family, we still love everything about Italy especially food which is simple, hearty fare but always made with love.”
At this stage, Teresa takes me into the kitchen to share some of the secrets of Italian cooking.
“You must use the finest ingredients – the best money can buy and sourced from Italy,” she begins.
“You need to create the right atmosphere. I always wear some red lipstick and listen to music when I’m cooking as it gets me in the right mood. Cooking is all about love and passion and if you do it without either of those ingredients – you’ll be able to taste it.”
Teresa takes me through a basic ‘Napoletana’ sauce which is at the heart of so many of our much-loved Italian favourites.
“It requires extra virgin oil, in which you fry onion with two cloves of garlic – then a tin of Italian plum tomatoes, preferably from a delicatessen. Then a little salt and pepper and then bring to the boil, then it’s time for the most important stage.” This is it; the life-enhancing, palate-pleasing ‘secret’ ingredient which will transform my Italian dishes for life.
“Put the pan on a low light and leave for one and a half to two hours, adding some water if you need more liquid and fresh basil leaves at the end,” Teresa explains.
Who knew that the secret of Italian food does not come down to one or two mystery ingredients known only to locals – it’s about taking the time to watch the pot.
“You cannot rush Italian food,” she confirms. “You have to give it your full attention – that’s the secret.”
Teresa Lambarelli’s Italian Caffé and Pasta Bar is located on Bakewell Road in Chesterfield.
For reservations or information ring (01246) 555516
The sauces are available from the other local outlets including; –
Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop, Pilsley, Bakewell
Dobbies Garden Centre, Barlborough, Chesterfield
Scotland Nurseries Garden Centre, Tansley
Brown and Green, Derby Garden Centre,
Watson and Brown, Chesterfield
Marsh Green Farm Shop, Kelstedge, Chesterfield
Also available from Sauced Here on
07842 302 210