Tag Archives: Italian cuisine

RECIPE Pollo alla Cacciatora

Despite my 12.5% Italian ancestry and my lifelong adherence to the Azzurri I was a bit hesitant about including an Italian dish with people like Italian Foodie around the site. Still, Pollo alla Cacciatora is a great cold weather comfort casserole and a favourite that I cook regularly, so here goes…

Cacciatore’ means ‘hunter’. All over Tuscany and Umbria in summer you see conventions of these guys, clad in bright waistcoats and mad bearskin hats, and mingling with the backpackers, Americans-doing-Europe and Japanese happy-snappers. Everything I read about this dish tells me that, given a commonality of chicken, bell peppers, tomatoes and wine, there are umpteen variations so I’m no reason to suspect that mine is not authentic.

You can use any lidded casserole, ideally one large enough to put all the chicken into one layer. I use a Portuguese cataplana, a two-part copper/steel dish (imagine 2 woks clipped together!) of which I have 2 or 3. It enables you to brown the chicken and sweat the vegetables on top of the stove and you don’t need to transfer everything to an oven proof casserole. In addition the air-tightness of the cataplana helps preserve the rich flavours during the cooking process.

1 chicken, jointed. At least free range and as righteous as your budget allows.

1 medium onion, finely chopped.

1 bunch small carrots, topped, tailed and scraped.

1 stick celery, chopped.

3-5 cloves of garlic, chopped fine

1 bell pepper, red, green or a mix, cut into chunks

5-6 large flat mushrooms

350 ml good passata (or a can of chopped tomatoes)

350 ml red wine

handful of herbs – at this time of year (March) I use sage, rosemary and fresh oregano from my garden.

salt and pepper to season. I’d recommend truffle salt for this purpose if you have it.

Serves 4

Pre-heat the oven to 220 C. Brown the chicken. I usually leave the skin on but you can remove it if you wish. Remove from heat and reserve. Sweat the onions, carrots, celery, peppers and garlic in the chicken fat (or olive oil) just until the onion starts to change colour. Put in the lidded casserole and place the mushrooms on top i one layer. Top with the chicken, skin, side up. Deglaze the frying pan with the wine and add the passata. Cook for one minute then pour over the dish. Cook in oven for approximately 1 hour. Remove, take the lid off, turn the oven down to 190 C and return the casserole to the oven. Cook for a further 15 minutes with the lid off to brown the chicken and thicken the sauce.

Serve with your choice of saute potatoes, mash, boiled rice or fried polenta and a green vegetable.

Thanks for the SLOW FISH – Genoa May 27th – 30th 2011

Slow Fish 2011, the sustainable fish event, will take place  in Genoa (Italy) from May 27 to 30.

This biennial international event dedicated to the world of fish and marine ecosystems has now reached its fifth edition. Debates, meetings, workshops and tastings will focus on issues linked to sustainable fishing and responsible seafood consumption.

A couple of days at Slow Fish, followed by a journey southward down the Ligurian coast would make a very agreeable holiday. Something I found out back in 2007.

Genoa is a historical port city in northern Italy, the capital of the Region of Liguria. As a tourist attraction Genoa is less feted than cities such as Rome, Florence or Venice. Nevertheless, it holds much of interest for the tourist with its multitude of hidden architectural gems in the narrow, winding alleys and its excellent cuisine (notably seafood). The city hosts one of  Europe’s biggest aquariums. The old port has been restored and the new one is brim-full of yachts, cruise ships and commercial vessels. It was, of course, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus.

With pastel-coloured terracotta-roofed houses, historic churches, elegant seaside villas, and surprisingly good boutique shopping, Genoa is a must see if you want to experience the “quintessential” The city makes a good base from which to sally forth to explore the Italian Riviera, particularly the fishing village-cum-seaside resort Camogli, Santa Margerita Ligure (for my money one of the world’s most under-rated resorts) and, playground of the wealthy, Portofino or to walk the Cinque Terre (tip: take the train to the farthest village, Riomaggiore and walk South-North. That way you can finish by cooling off, plunging into the sea at Monterosso al Mare.)

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Slow Fish is organized by the Liguria Regional Authority and Slow Food, with the support of the Carige Foundation, the Province of Genoa, the Genoa Chamber of Commerce and the City of Genoa. One section of Slow Fish is dedicated to the international campaigns, launched by Slow Food after Slow Fish 2009.

The campaigns aim to inform consumers, promoting good, clean and fair fish and creating connections between all those working to make fishing and fish consumption sustainable. The theme of Slow Fish 2011 is ‘Small-scale fishers: a threatened species’ The 2009 salon was dedicated to fish species. This year, the spotlight turns on the people of the sea. Displays will reflect artisan fishing as it used to be, outlining the skills and hardships fisher folk incurred and contrasting it with small-scale fishing as it is now, how it has modernized, how it relates to the world and how it has suffered from globalisation.

Foodies will enjoy The Market exhibition area which offers a rich display of fresh and preserved fish, oils, spices, salt, seaweed and other related products. All the exhibitors, Italian and international, have committed to not using artificial preservatives and flavors and will not sell bluefin tuna, swordfish, shark and salmon, species at risk of extinction. The Slow Food Presidia of the Sea can also be found in the Market, offering concrete examples of how fishing communities can live in harmony with the ecosystem, preserving the marine fauna and adding value to their work by selling high-quality fresh fish and processed products. The two experiences organized in the Slow Food Education area, designed for the public and schoolchildren, offer both a look at the sea and its people and fishing techniques and rhythms from the fishermen’s perspective and also suggestions on how to select the best fish, read food labels and prepare delicious seafood at home. Chefs play a central role in consumer education, and so for the first time the Alliance Osteria will find a home at Slow Fish. Here, around 20 chefs from the Italian and international network will be preparing dishes based on Slow Food Presidia. The event will also see the return of the Water Workshops, opportunities for analysis and debate around key issues, and cooking demonstrations from chefs in the Theatre of Taste. Not to mention the Osterias of the Sea, Street Food and ‘Fishwiches’, where visitors can sample gastronomic specialties from around Italy, all paired with excellent wines from the Enoteca.

The Slow Fish website, http://www.slowfish.it reveals what’s new for the 2011 symposium, with information on bookable events and all the tastings, conferences and meetings in the program.

If you’d like to know more about sustainable fishing the BIM webiste http://www.bim.ie is a good place to start.

RECIPE – Fillet of Pork in Milk


Sometimes my cooking gets into a rut and I have to shake myself out of it. When people come to dinner I tend to rely on the ‘tried and trusted’. Sometimes, though ‘tried and trusted’ morphs into ‘tired and disgusted’ (with myself, for my lack of effort). Last weekend , between waiting for FF to be annihilated and the hapless Greens to be composted, I placed a stack of cookbooks beside my favourite chair and browsed them, one by one. This idea, the result of that exercise, is a compound of Marcela Hazan and River Café, both rooted in Italian tradition. The recipe and method is pretty much Me.

The combination of milk and pork sounds unlikely but, believe me, it’s delicious. The addtion of lemon zest curdles the milk slightly and what you get is nutty, brown nuggets in the sauce.

1 medium-sized pork fillet

3 slim leeks, washed and cut into approx 12cm pieces

2-3 red onions, peeled and cut into quarters lengthways

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Milk (ideally whole milk)

Zest of a lemon

Sprig of sage, sprig of rosemary

Serves 4

Preheat the oven to 220 C

Season the pork and sear briefly in a dry hot skillet or ridged griddle pan. Remove and place in a cast iron baking dish (I used a large Le Creuset). Surround with the leeks and onions and pour in the milk until it comes half way up the pork. Add the lemon zest and the sage and rosemary. Bring the milk to the boil then

Place in oven and bake for 30-40 minutes. Remove the pork and allow to rest. Return the dish to the stove top and boil briefly to reduce and thicken slightly. Scrape any brown residue from the sides or base of the dish back into the sauce. Slice the meat, either thinly or into medallions and serve with the vegetables, sauce and either mash or sauté potatoes.


BOOK REVIEW – Inside the Italian Kitchen

I really like this book, a collaboration between chef Marco Roccasalvo of  the restaurant Capo de’Fiori in Bray and Anne Kennedy of greatfood.ie. who, in her introduction, says “If you think some of his recipes are too simple to be excellent, then his (Marco’s) work is done.”

There’s a long and informative section on the Italian store cupboard, stressing the importance of using top class ingredients and giving a few wrinkles, hints and tips on how to choose and use them. Marco stresses the importance of matching pasta to sauce, for example and teaches you how to tell good mozzarella from bad.

The section on coffee is not mega-helpful; I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that the Italians, who invented that marvelous gadget the espresso machine, overlook coffee’s potential complexity of flavour in favour of the ‘big hit’. A lifestyle thing, I suppose – ‘drink your espresso and move on’.

And so to the recipes. Simple is right and none the worse for it. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be replicated by the average home cook and nothing that your guests wouldn’t enjoy. And, from first page till last, the author’s honesty shines through, contributing to the book’s authenticty.

‘Inside the Italian Kitchen’ would make a wonderful first cookbook, a perfect primer to teach young people away from home for the first time how to cook tasty, nourishing food with the minimum of fuss and bother.

‘Inside the Italian Kitchen’, €20, is published by www.Greatfood.ie and available from the restaurant, from bookshops and from the website.



Preparing the beasts is not rocket science. Cut off the claws, as near to the body as you can. Whack them lightly with a hammer or the blunt end of a cleaver. Peel off the shell and prise out the meat (using fingers and a metal skewer). Twist off the head. Draw a sharp knife down the underside of the belly, splitting the body into two. Extract the meat and set aside. You can save the half-shells for serving the lobster in but I prefer to collect all the residue and make stock, boiling it up with water and any vegetable trimmings I can find.

For the stock

Place the residue of the lobster – head, coral (unless you like it in the risotto), shell – in a large plan with 1.5 litres of water, a chopped carrot, a small onion, a stick of celery and a handful of parley and thyme. If you want a stronger-flavoured stock, here’s a cheat – add a heaped teaspoonful of the Prawn Paste you can buy in the Oriental Emporium or Asian grocers. Boil briskly for no longer than 45 minutes or until the water has reduced by one third. Strain and reserve the liquid, keeping it hot but not boiling.


2 small knobs of butter and a little extra virgin olive oil

2 leeks, thinly sliced

1 small-medium onion, finely chopped

360g good Italian risotto rice (carnaroli, arborio, vialone nano)

1 heaped tsp dried oregano

1 good glass of dry white wine

1 litre lobster stock (above) or hot water

350g lobster meat

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Zest of two limes

Serves 4

Sweat leeks and onion in some butter and extra virgin olive oil in a large pan on the stovetop, under a low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon – important, according to all the top risotto chefs. When the onions just start to change colour, add the rice and continue to stir for one minute. Add the white wine and increase the heat. Keep stirring. When the wine has almost evaporated add some of the lobster (or chicken or vegetable) stock or water. Keep stirring, adding stock or water as necessary; don’t let it stick – as an Italian chef told me “Risotto is like an unfaithful girlfriend. Take your eyes off her, she’ll play you false.” Keep stirring with the wooden spoon, don’t move away from the stove. Add stock or water as necessary, a little at a time, stirring and keeping the constituency slightly soupy. Season to taste – if you are using lobster stock or stock cubes of any kind you won’t need much salt. When the rice is almost cooked, add the lobster meat. When the rice is firm but not grainy – the true meaning of the Italian phrase ‘al dente’ – finish with a knob of butter and lay out on a large plate. Grate the zest of two limes over the risotto and serve.

And, please… no cheese for this one.

The above methodology works for all kinds of risotto. It’s not difficult, it’s not time-consuming – approx 25 minutes from chopping board to table. Remember – stand-over/feed/stir and repeat until done.

Restaurant Review – Taste of Emilia/Alexis Pizza & Deli

One of the biggest culinary myths is that there’s such a thing as Italian food. There’s not. To comprehend this you have to realise that Italy, as we know it today, is a relatively modern creation, cobbled together out of a number of smaller states , each with its own heritage, culture and, indeed, cuisine. In these matters, Lombardy, in the north, has about as much in common with Puglia, in the extreme south-west as Tullamore, Co Offaly has with Tirana, Albania.

Still, there is some commonality. First and foremost is the love of food. All over Italy you find cooking is regarded as a pleasure, sometimes even a privilege, and not a chore. Secondly, there’s the generosity of the host. Get invited to an Italian home and, rich or poor, they’ll roll out the red carpet for you. Thirdly, whatever goes into the pot or onto the plate, the freshness of the ingredients is a given.

The mutilation of Italian food abroad that has resulted in much dire dining – the blood red synthetic sauces, the cardboard pizzas – is not the fault of the Italians themselves. It’s down to the timidity of Anglo and Celtic palates. The Italians who emigrated initially cooked the food of their home region. Alas, brought up on our sad, grey diets, we picked and chose only those things we could easily stomach and rejected the rest. Small wonder that Italian restaurateurs, in the main, gave up trying and just gave us the bits we craved.

Fifteen years ago, when I was cooking for a living, I decided to extend our café/restaurant’s vegetarian choice by including a dish I had found on a visit to Italy. It was simple enough, grilled aubergines and fresh sage, covered in a bechamel spiced with nutmeg and dusted generously with aged pecorino cheese. The first day I put the dish on I had two complaints. From a banker who told me I’d left the tomatoes out of the sauce in error and from a ‘head’ who moaned “De black tings have made me burd sick”. It didn’t last long on the menu.

There’s plenty of average-to-crap Italian food in Dublin. Going to som lengths to avoid meeting it I always end up in an outpost of the Dunne and Crescenzi empire, the exquisite little Pinocchio in Ranelagh or, occasionally in Mick Wallace’s Enoteca in the daftly-named Quartier Bloom. If I want to go slightly, though not extravagantly, upscale then Nonna Valentina or Il Primo have always proved authentic and reliable. Il Manifesto, in Rathmines can accommodate me at either end of the price scale.

Last week, I found two others to add to my list. The History Woman, a regular dining companion with the appetite and exuberance of me at a similarly youthful age, dragged me to Taste of Emilia in Liffey Street and boy, am I glad she did. The place is tiny, twenty seats tops, the menu plain, unvarnished. You can have plates, or rather, boards, small or large, of prosciutto and salami, cheeses or a blend of both plus tuly wonderful bruschetta and a few other delights like good olives and especially fine artichokes. A couple of Italian ladies run the place, bestowing civility and smiles in equal parts, the whole vibe is like dining in the kitchen of someone you’ve just met but liked instantly. The provenance and condition of all the ingredients is first rate. Wines are Italian, with a reliable Prosecco, a Valpolicella ripasso of no great distinction and a Brunello di Montalcino which, as ever, didn’t justify the asking price. There are no desserts but a ‘chocolate grappa’ – I forget the full title – will keep your sweet tooth hopping happily.

Later in the week, Sibella was dining with her golfing chums and I needed something more substantial than the left-overs in the fridge. Fate caused me to happen across Alexis Pizza and Deli in Deansgrange which must surely be one of County Dublin’s as yet undiscovered gems. It’s a sister ship to the excellent Alexis bistro in Dun Laoghaire. In a spotless café, nicely appointed, I partook of a substantial roasted vegetable antipasto, a plateful of aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes and peppers, nicely garnished and some good bread to mop up the residue of the fine olive oil in which the ingredients had been marinated. Afterwards, I designed my own pizza with tomato, aged parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, anchovies, mushrooms and a scattering of sprightly rucola over the top. The crust was thin, crisp and as far removed from your average take-away as it’s possible to get and the toppings generous. It cost €11.50. The wine list is a small jewel. I took three glasses, the first a white Custoza from the Veneto house of Zenato, a quantum leap from ubiquitous, bland, boring Pinot Grigio. The second, again from Zenato (whose wines currently feature ‘on special’ at many Dublin wine merchants in honour of the winery’s 50th birthday) was a Ripassa della Valpolicella, one of the best around. It’s a huge wine though and somewhat overwhelmed the pizza’s delicate flavours so I backtracked and took a glass of Rosso Piceno Superiore from Brecciaolo, a maker I particularly admire. This proved the perfect complement. The trio, by the way, set me back €16.40, which I consider extremely reasonable.

Alexis Pizza and Deli, 31, Deansgrange Road, Deansgrange, Co Dublin  Tel (01) 289 7503


Food ***

Wine ****

Service ***

Ambience **

Overall ***1/2

First published in The Dubliner Magazine, free with The Evening Herald on Thurdsdays

Nonna Valentina


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


Rating ****


Nonna Valentina,1-2 Portobello Road, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 454 9866

Bar Italia IFSC

I’ve just had charge of my grandchildren (aged 8 and 10) for a fortnight. Between Dublin and God’s Own County, I’ve been running a sort of mini summer camp, every unforgiving minute, to quote Rudyard Kipling, filled with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, maybe seventy. What with teaching chess, guitar, and cookery; playing football, rugby, golf and beach volleyball; supervising swimming and long-jumping; helping with poetry writing and maths papers, not to mention stopping them killing each other in between activities, I’m utterly knackered.

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 ***

Service: ***1/2

Quality: ****

Value: ***1/2

Overall ***1/2

Bar Italia IFSC, Custom House Square, Lower Mayor Street, IFSC, Dublin 1 Tel:+353 (0)1 670 2887

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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.

Ambience: ***

Service ***

Quality **

Value **

Overall **

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Talavera – II

Geronimo and Crazy Horse were meeting for the last time before they were confined to the reservation. They reminisced about the good old days before the “long knife soldiers” and the carpet baggers arrived to rob them of their riches, the plains, the buffalo, the freedom to roam, hunt and shoot.

Tuesday night was a bit like that. Two battle-scarred veterans sat chewing the fat about the halcyon times before the ad agencies and the PR practitioners combined to shackle journalism. It’s good to have nights like that and no better place, especially when it’s blowing hooligan winds and raining stair rods outside, than in Talavera, the warm, comfortable cavern in the otherwise stygian basement of the Radisson St.Helens Hotel.
But why Talavera? Why name an Italian restaurant after a battle staged in Spain during the Napoleonic War? Or a town that’s the Mexican equivalent of Stoke-on-Trent? Very curious. Anyhow, no matter for we were happy to take Talavera at face value, one hundred per cent authentic Italian restaurant (and God knows, there aren’t many of those around). The place had changed since my last meal there. An ante room had been opened up to accomodate non-smoking customers and the main area shrunk – to accommodate a serious refrigerated cabinet allowing sous chef Giancarlo Anselmi to exercise his imagination and his kitchen to create the most varied selection of antipasti this side of The Dolomites.
Arancini, carciofi, anchovies, pickled tongue, Parma ham, Parmesan were all there winking at us and, like braves spotting an unarmed wagon train, we swooped. Everything was delicious, although Crazy Horse, who, like myself, comes from a tribe of tongue eaters, opined that his mother’s version was superior. Whatever; at 10.50 a throw Talavara’s antipasti platter has got to be the best value starter in Dublin.
The wine list was commendably ethnic, nothing on it to tempt you from the indigenous wines. We picked a bottle of Masi’s Soave to accompany the starter and allowed a bottle of Sicilian Nero d’Avola/Merlot to warm up, flexing its considerable muscle at a safe distance from the roaring artificial ‘real’ fire.
The menu, I think, could be described as ‘succinct’; like many regional restaurants in Italy choice was sensibly limited to allow the kitchen to do a few dishes well rather than a lot indifferently. Crazy Horse had the filet of beef, Geronimo the veal. The one came with fresh figs and a Marsala sauce generously bestowed; the other with a sauce described as ‘rich, wild mushroom’. One taste told me that these funghi were certainly not tame and penniless. The main courses came accompanied by rather good small boiled potatoes of the slightly waxy variety and a plate of stewed peppers, aubergines and zucchini, not so much as a sprig of microwaved broccoli in sight. The beef was a goodly portion, about the thickness of a sapling trunk and cooked medium rare as requested, with considerable precision. The veal was likewise thick and plentiful, nicely seasoned, flavoured with a herb (rosemary?), fettled to perfection. As a pice of meat it was beautifully balanced, being neither embryonic calf or truculent young bull.
The red worked a treat. Nero d’Avola, the Sicilian grape lent a morello cherry flavour with a dark hint of mystery and intrigue appropriate to the island of Corleone while the Merlot wrapped the tannins in a soft and approachable package. Classic food wine. At this stage I was prepared to assert that Talavera was, in my opinion, the best Italian restaurant in Dublin and Giancarlo the best Italian chef since Wexford’s Roberto Pons.
But things took a slight dip as we stormed the sweet table. No panna cotta? You’ve got to be kidding.
“Well”, said Giancarlo who had by this time emerged from the kitchen, “We are in a state of transaction.” Better than a state of chassis, I suppose, but the only transaction I wanted to make was to bargain for some fresh fruit to support the panna cotta. As I’ve probably stated before in these pages, I am a panna cotta tifoso. Years ago I lost my heart to a pristine example of this creamy confection, one dashed with vanilla seeds, blended with a hint of rum and festooned with tiny wild strawberries. My devotion has been unswerving ever since. I settled for a baked cheescake, albeit a good one, and a sulk.
Crazy Horse took the passion fruit mousse.
Giancarlo’s “state of transaction”, it seemed, alluded to the fact that the hotel has closed Le Panto (surely Lepanto, another battle?) the classical restaurant upstairs, temporarily or permanently, no one seems to know. A new executive chef is expected and there’s worrying talk of larger-scale buying – currently the meat is sourced from a repuatble local butcher so we hope not. We finished with an excellent ristretto and a brace of grappa, putting a patina on the evening and stopping the sulk. At this juncture I must make mention of the first-rate Bulgarian waitress, Radostina and Annett, the supervisor, both of whom made us feel like we belonged in attending to our needs. Sometimes I divide the world into people who should be working in a service industry and those who shouldn’t. These two are prime candidates for the first category.
To sum up, panna cotta famine apart, Talavera is a really good restaurant with a capable chef making exemplary use of well-sourced ingredients. We’d spent e170, gratuities discretionary, but that included the grappas and the second bottle and we both felt we’d had excellent value for money.
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