After the little dears had gone to bed, my working day began. I still had a restaurant review to write, the venue decided by the presence of the terrible twosome, finicky eaters both. I asked the darlings what kind of nosh they would like and the answer, amazing when their natural tendency is to squabble, came back in unison… ..“Italian!” Even this wasn’t as simple as it sounds; Alex will eat pasta, un-sauced, but not pizza; whereas Katie hates pasta but likes pizza, a sort of Jack Sprat and his missus scenario. Which is how come we came to be dining, on a Tuesday night, at the newer of the two branches of Bar Italia, located in the bowels of a largely deserted IFSC. The dining room is pleasant and modern, with the now-trademark ‘library shelves’ holding wine bottles. The clientele that night was mainly Italian and Spanish and all seemed happy with the fare on offer.
Of all the food outlets in the capital, the Dunne and Crescenzi empire, consisting of La Corte, L’Officine, the rather good Nonna Valentina in the old Thornton’s premises, multiple D & Cs and two Bar Italias seems to generate the most contrasting opinions; there’s a definite ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ vibe that becomes particularly evident when you delve into punter review sites such as Menupages.ie – “food was barely above average considering the price and the service was shoddy at best” versus “nothing to beat it for good service, friendliness and rare Italian atmosphere!”, extracts from two reviews of visits in the same week.
Having been a regular patron of Dunne & Crescenzi when I worked in town, I’m firmly in the “Love” camp but I can understand why the group has its detractors. Italian food, though Thai and Indian are making inroads, is still Ireland’s favourite foreign cuisine. It’s been with us for a long time, with appeal based on simple, robust flavours. Also, as exemplified by the ‘Irish-Italian’ restaurants where we first learned to twiddle a fork in a bowl of bolly, portions tend to be gargantuan and sauces are lavishlyly slathered. Any restaurant that deviates from this formula does so at its peril.
The essence and the charm of Bar Italia is that it is truly and uncompromisingly Italian. That night the quality of the ingredients was beyond reproach. My bistecca Fiorentina, cooked exactly as I demanded, was a prime piece of tasty T-bone. Sibella’s prosciutto and rocket pizza, of goodly size, was an absolute picture of freshness; the base (made on the premises) was thin and crisp yet had pronounced flavour – too many thin pizzas taste like expanded water biscuit. By this stage the waiters, impressed by my grandson’s Italianate ability to eat naked pasta had taken to calling him “Alessandro”. It’s true that the portions were not enormous but then Italians traditionally regard pasta as a ‘primo’, a course preceding the main. The saucing was fairly sparse but this too is how it’s done in Rome.
Here’s Menupages again “desserts were not exciting at all”. How true. Paolo Tullio once told me that “We Italians don’t really do desserts”. Tiramisu, panna cotta and, of course, ice cream apart he’s dead right. Still, our bowls of gelati, whilst not exciting, were delicious.
Once more I quote from Menupages – “the Americano I drank was awful”. To this coffee anorak the remark begs the question “Why are you drinking an Americano in an Italian restaurant?” In my opinion an Americano is a bastard drink dreamed up by some European barista to give tourists something akin to the way they fettle Nescafé in their own home. Mind you, the Americans have had their revenge. I have had to explain in Milan and Bologna that, no, I was not a Yankee so did not need a cappuccino with a cow’s worth of milk plus foam thick enough to shave with. At Bar Italia my cappuccino was classically correct, being made from a single shot and nicely capped with a modest foam dome.
Re service. At most of the D&C establishments front-of-house tend to be young Italians, enthusiastic in the main but far from the finished article. You have zilch chance of encountering the formal efficiency that seems to come naturally to the French. Italians, from north or south, evince that ‘unable/ unwilling to be regimented’ mien so while they’ll smile, flirt or tickle your baby under the chin they won’t necessarily notice you are lacking a fork unless you bring it to their attention. Many diners are unable to cope with this, driving them into the ‘Hate’ camp.
In the end, whichever camp you find yourself in comes down to your personal preferences. If you like humungous portions, lashings of sauce, Starbucks’ style cappuccino and precision service you should maybe forgo a visit to Bar Italia. But as it has the things I revere – honesty, authenticity and charm, I’m happy to give it my custom.
The Damage: 105 for 2 pizzas, dish of pasta, steak, 3 desserts, 2 glasses wine
Ambience: Lunch ***** Night ***
Bar Italia IFSC, Custom House Square, Lower Mayor Street, IFSC, Dublin 1 Tel:+353 (0)1 670 2887