I’ve been an Italophile since the first round of the 1982 World Cup. Of mixed English, Scots and Welsh descent, I have never been the most jingoistic of people and that year I got sick of the constant bigging-up by the press of the England football team, all proclaiming that Ron Greenwood’s gunslingers would terrify the cowards of Europe and South America and ride off into the sunset clutching the Jules Rimet. Queasy, I decided the only panacea was to find some other team to follow.
At that point, enter Paolo Rossi, Claudio Gentile, Marco Tardelli, Enzo Scirea and the rest, footballers with tasty mid-blue shirts, snazzy haircuts and attitude. In their wake they brought more drama than Sammy Becket and Sean O’Casey combined and more internecine strife than the Civil War. They fascinated me. Accordingly, I backed Italy to win the trophy. With their every dismal performance in the preliminary rounds, I doubled and redoubled my stake. Eventually Italy sneaked undeservedly into the late stages, before redeeming themselves by stuffing Germany with a vintage performance in the final. I copped for a packet. Since then, I’ve followed the Azzurri in every tournament and I’m happy to say I’m still in credit.
Since that year Italy has claimed around one third of my vacation time. Como to Salerno, I love the country. The people too, with their unequalled ability to go from exultation to despair and back again in the twinkling of an eye, a mood swing capacity entirely in tune with my own mildly bipolar temperament. I also love Italian food, with its contrast of flavours, brazen and subtle, forte and pianissimo, that puts me in mind of fat tenors, cosseting mommas, scooter girls with long dark hair, abundant sunshine, oh, and…. football.
Unfortunately both the bravura and the ethereal aspects of Italian cooking are all-to-often poorly rendered in restaurants here. Lashings of red sauce, lumpy pasta and cardboard pizza clog the taste buds. The ‘fill the belly, sod the soul’ school of cookery seems to prevail. Only a few give you authenticity, in food, atmosphere or both, than the bog standard offering.
Club Leo, an arcane society of which I am a founder member, dined the other week in Nonna Valentina. Every Leo Luncheon is an occasion to savour, the more so as I am a cranky middle-aged git and the other members are all beautiful young women. Still, I do have my uses. I was handed the wine list. Picking wines for these demoiselles is not an arduous task, though. There are only two specific requirements, “red” and “ lots”. In order to facilitate the latter, I looked down the cheapissimo end of the list and was delighted to find a Salice de Salentino I’d enjoyed before. Pronto, I summoned up two bottles.
Me and The Litry Chick pride ourselves on our punctuality and are often mildly irritated when The Knocklyon Princess swans up an age after the appointed hour as is typically the case. This tendency means we need a restaurant that’s fairly relaxed about its closing time. According to their website Nonna V’s opens “Mon – Sun, 12 till late”, so no problem there. However, after the Litry Chick and Yours Truly had been drumming our fingers on the table for many minutes, the nice Italian waitress warned us that the chef clocked off at 3pm. Eventually her Royal Knocklyon Highness arrived, fanfare of trumpets, accompanied by our other good buddy, I Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Julia Roberts. Ostensibly we were faced with the prospect of shovelling down 3 courses in 20 minutes. In the event, both waitress and chef (presumably Italian too) were relaxed enough to let us continue till late in the afternoon, for which both apologies and thanks.
Three of us, travelling steerage, opted for the set lunch, \22.50 for three courses plus coffee with the Knocklyon Princess opting for the a la carte, heart and mind set on the rack of lamb. The set lunch proved excellent and typically Italianate with classic starters – a caprese salad, with good buffalo mozzarella and flavoursome tomatoes for a change; a selection of crostini with ‘Italian patés’ – sun dried tomatoes, pesto, artichokes, etc., and a simple dish which few restaurants would dare to attempt and fewer would succeed – thick slices of fresh bread, ripe chopped tomatoes, garlic, pasta and first-rate Ligurian olive oil.
The three proles picked pasta dishes for mains; a lasagne with a fine, rich Irish beef ragu; trenette, with pesto; and rigatoni with melanzana and tomato sauce. All authentic and satisfying. We then hung around watching the Princess wolf down her King-sized portion of rack of lamb. She didn’t offer us any.
Dessert consisted of a choice of panna cotta with wild forest berries and ‘Valentina’s own tiramisu’. I’d had this before and was wowed. The Litry Chick thought it maybe over-moist until I pointed out that it had been infused with a generous slug of vin santo. This seemed to mollify her. Of course she’s been avoiding the jar until recently (pregnancy) so she might just have been a tad off the pace. My panna cotta was excellent – I’ve had too many grainy ones recently; this one was slippery as a bent banker. Coffee, as expected from an establishment bearing the Dunne & Crescenzi imprint, was well up to the mark.
Verdict: Relaxed restaurant, essence of an Italian summer transported to the banks of The Grand Canal. Handy location, plenty of parking around. Lovely rooms (dine upstairs if possible). Spotless facilities. Special mention for the wonderful service.
The damage: €136.50, ex-service for 3 x 3 course lunches + coffees, 1 main course, 1 coffee, 2 bottles wine
Nonna Valentina,1-2 Portobello Road, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 454 9866