I know Antonio Carluccio. I’ve dined with him, drunk with him, listened to him talking about food in language others reserve for describing beautiful women and marvelled at his infeasibly large repertoire of off-colour jokes. Antonio , many years ago, set out on a mission to introduce Londoners to proper Italian cucina, food that didn’t have its origins in The Great Red Sauce Swamp, located, so ’tis rumoured, midway between Venice and Rome. Today, Carluccio café/delis circle London like redskins round a wagon train. At some point in the campaign Antonio retired to his teepee and put his feet up.
It’s surprising how many people I spoke to this week think Tone is still at the controls. Sorry guys, but you are not going to be greeted at the door of Carluccio’s new Dawson Street diner/deli by a genial stocky Italian bearing more than a passing facial resemblance to Marge Simpson. Carluccio is now a brand, a chain, maybe a franchise.
The Dublin branch got off to a spluttering start. On Thursday night the kitchen packed up. No matter, these things happen so we were back again on Friday, queuing half an hour for a table (you can’t pre-book). Some of the tables are communal, causing a certain consternation in the queue. Why? It’s not a new concept here. Wagamama has had them for years and before that Chez Jules, long gone from D’Olier Street.
After 20 minutes we acquired a table for two and kicked off with the ‘bread tin’ – a mite steep at 3.95 we thought but it did come with a small bowl of olives and a dish of olive oil. The tin contained focaccia, Ligurian olive bread, biscuits and grissini.
Starters were, at best, a disaster. Pearl’s calamari were a tribute not to Antonio but to another famous Italian – Giovanni Battista Pirelli, so tough, you could have shod a Ferrari F2008 with them. They arrived cushioned by a bed of exhausted lettuce fit only for the compost heap. I had arancini – ‘little oranges’ – rice balls moulded round ‘goodies’, in this case mozzarella and ragu, then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Done properly, a tasty way of using up leftover risotto. Alas, I searched the ragu one in vain for any sign of filling. Not were they over-generous with the cheese.
I nicked some of milady’s ravioli. Great filled pasta always has that “I can’t believe it’s dough” weightlessness. Hers was okay but somehow lacked ‘wow!’. Veal chop with sage butter is Mamma’s big feed for her carnivore sons in Italy’s Marche region. Except the chop would be larger and twice the thickness and the sage would overwhelm with its perfume. Sparsely garnished with sauté potatoes, Carluccio’s version was, in comparison, nodino di vitello lite and not cheap at 23.95.
Don’t ever put faith in the description ‘award winning’ on a wine list, especially if it doesn’t say who dished out the gong. The supposedly accoladed Montarossa Fiano, grotesquely scented, was as far off a ‘food wine’ as you could get. On the other hand the Candido Salice Salentino Riserva red (26.95) is a reliable standby on many Italian restaurant wine lists. Soft, rounded yet robust, I was glad to see it here.
For dessert we took an excellent lemon sorbet and a panna cotta, incorporating limoncello, the famed lemon liqueur from the Amalfi coast. I am a panna cotta tifoso and this example would have won my unqualified approval except it was bathed in a syrupy sauce speckled by bits of candied peel that, irritatingly, got stuck in the teeth. With panna cotta, less is more; all it needs by way of accompaniment is half a dozen raspberries or a sprig of redcurrants; tart fruit to balance the heavy set cream.
Coffee was, I have to say, outstanding. My espresso wore a thick orange-hued crema. Better still, the waitress offered a choice of blends, Milan or Napoli, light or dark roasted. The atmosphere was busy-buzzy all night, especially at the communal tables.
Some say it’s unfair to judge an establishment in the first month of opening. I used to think this but frankly I’ve got fed up with restaurants rehearsing on the public’s time and with the public’s money. Carluccio’s at least have the service aspect battened down. Staff were mainly delightful young Poles, many of whom had clearly received sound professional training.
According to their website Carluccio’s aim is to serve ‘great quality, authentic Italian food at sensible prices’. If so, why were there items, like my starter, that purported to take the piss? Two lumps of rice for 8.95 anyone? The niggle was further compounded when I found the bowl of olives, which we had not asked for, tacked on the bill – pushing the bread to a steep 6.40. The overall cost was not excessive – just under a hundred for all we ate and drank – but, in truth, the food was nothing special, certainly not ‘great quality’. If Carluccio’s does what it says on the tin, the tin is slightly dented.
What was missing most was the grin factor; the joy that eating Italian food brings. Like the smile I wear when I eat Roberto Pons’ cooking at La Dolce Vita in Wexford town, for which locals still queue, year-on-year. When the novelty wears off I don’t think people will be queuing down Dawson Street way.
The Damage: 110 including tip for 2 X 3 courses, 1 bottle wine, 1 glass, 2 coffees.