Tag Archives: Italy

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.

PUGLIA – AN UP-AND-COMING WINE REGION

A short trip to Puglia, in Italy’s extreme south-east, provided one of the most interesting experiences in this wine writer’s crowded year. The Mediterranean climate, coupled with a predominance of soil types suited to grape growing, has made the region a significant producer of wine. Close on half a million acres is dedicated to viticulture, split between wine and table grapes. Back in the 1980s, wine production reached nearly 350 million gallons. To put this in perspective, that’s over three times the current production of Chile.

In those days you wouldn’t have found a bottle of Puglian wine in your local wine merchants. Indeed very little was bottled at all. Some was sold at the cellar door. Some got distilled, or turned into grape concentrate to use for soil enrichment. Most was sent North for blending, chiefly into vermouth.

Our trip was based around the Torrevento winery, housed in a former monastery in the Castel del Monte area, north of Bari. There has been a good deal of investment in Torrevento, in shiny stainless steel tanks, expensive oak barrels and in technology. Torrevento has vineyards in other parts of Pugia and this is reflected in wines like Sine Nomine and Faneros, representing Salice Salentino in the far south of the province, made principally from a luxuriantly aromatic black grape called negroamaro. Another Puglian grape variety is bombino, a mispronunciation of which caused great hilarity over dinner when one of our number declared “I love pompino” – Italian for ‘blow job’! At lunch on the final day I enjoyed an invigorating easy-drinking young white wine, Pezzapiana, made from a blend of bombino bianco and pampanuto, another local hero.

We spent an afternoon picking grapes. It’s a backbreaking task, making you appreciate the efforts of the regulars. Even picking carefully, there still seemed an inordinate amount of leaf and stalk in my basket. To make an exceptional wine this has to be removed, calling for investment in either sorting by hand or expensive complex machinery. Another small reminder why good wine costs more.

On the final night we were subjected to a blending exercise. Blending wines is enormous fun, probably the most you can have with your clothes on; it certainly beats Scrabble, Trivvy and charades hands down. Over the years I’ve taken part in quite a few such exercises. I recall one where Phillip Laffer, at the time head winemaker of Orlando who make Jacob’s Creek, gave assorted wine scribes bottles of the Reserve Shiraz of the four consitutent parts – wines from MacLaren Vale, The Barossa, Padthaway and Langhorne Creek if I recall correctly, with instructions to replicate the finished article. I actually got it right first off but Phil snidely convinced me I was “nearly there” and so I starting fiddling with my blend and finished up further and further away. I remind him of this every time we meet, mainly because the prize for the winner was a case of top dollar shiraz and I was well miffed!

At Torrevento our task was to blend something potable from our choice of the four local wines they gave us. Steering a team of opinionated international wine writers in what you think is the right direction is no easy task. I had to summon up all my years of experience as a trade union official in a former life. Several times we reached a state of anarchy, chaos and instability comparable to the government of a bankrupt banana republic but eventually we pulled together and at the end of the night our wine was declared the gold medal winner.

I’d urge you, especially if you’ve never done it, to give blending a go. You’ll learn a lot about what makes wine tick and have bags of fun doing it. All you need is a few inexpensive bottles of single varietals – a cabernet sauvignon, a shiraz, a merlot will do nicely and a few pals to share the experience. A laboratory jar and a pipette would be handy – maybe ask the kids – but a kitchen measuring jug, marked in millilitres will do nicely, plus a plastic funnel and a few empty bottles to store your efforts . The smart thing is to make a ‘control wine’ first; one that everyone agrees is “almost there”. Keep this and test subsequent efforts against it.

The winery’s glory is the red Castel del Monte Riserva, Vigna Pedale, made 100% from Nero di Troia, a patrician grape that seemed destined for oblivion until rescued by Torrevento in the mid-nineties.  We were given a vertical tasting (same wine, successive vintages) of Vigna Pedale and the gulf in class between 1996, the first and 2006, the latest, were very evident. In quality terms, Vigna Pedale is at least the equivalent of, say, a top notch Chianti Classico. With this rate of progress and (I’m going out on a limb here) it might soon be able to compete with some of the trendy much-trumpeted ‘Super Tuscans’, more affordable too. Certainly the soft tannins and the abundant fragrance of the nero di troia make Vigna Pedale easy to drink when still relatively young.

Alas, it’s not available here in Ireland as yet, though Torrevento are established in the UK.  I’d love to see more Puglian wines in Ireland as the wines have real character, grapes employed are, for the most part, local and regional and make a refreshing change  from ‘the usual suspects’. The region is currently undergoing a huge quality hike in pursuit of which which the Torrevento winery is in the van.

Punta Aquila primitivo 2007, a lovely Puglian red (recently ‘on special’ for €12.99, O’Brien’s) comes loaded with dark, opulent plums, with a hint of black pepper and spice on the back palate. With enough balancing acidity to prevent it being flabby and boring.

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

Rating

Food ***

Wine ****

Service ***

Ambience **

Overall ***1/2

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

New Wines from M&S

Attended the Marks & Spencer tasting of their latest offerings, here are my notes.

The tasting took place in the cellar of WHPR/Ogilvy & Mather building in Ely Place.

Some of the whites were too chilled, some of the reds a tad soupy but otherwise the event was really well organised – spittoons, clipboards with a catalogue, logical order (mostly), loads of space and a fair bit of cunus (certainly for the early arrivals) – other organisers please take note. Kudos to Claire Guiney from WHPR who organised matters and got Ireland’s top brass tasters there without needing to promise a gourmet lunch. I could get fond of the M&S crisps, though.

At the outset I got genuinely excited over the sparklers when I thought I’d unearthed a quite decent Champagne for €17.49. Alas, the price was a misprint, but **Louis Chaury‘s blend of 40% PN/30 Chard/30PM was still great value for the, corrected, €21.50 – this has got to be one of the better budget Champagnes around.

***St.Gall Vintage Grand Cru 2002 did cost €44 but it’s stunning and worth every penny for its bravura flavours.

On to the whites and an interesting dry *2008 Pedro Ximenez from class act Alvaro Espinoza in Chile’s Elqui Valley. Unoaked, clean party wine, different and distinctive.

A couple of Chardonnays from Argentina demonstrated differing characteristics. The €6.99 Vinalta 2008 was drinkable, commendably bereft of tinned fruit and good value. The Fragoso 2006, €9.99 had some weird dark notes that spoilt the enjoyment a bit, at least for this critic. Both were preferable to the oaked Altos del Condor 2008 (winemaker with the discouraging name of Daniel Pi); described on the back label as as ‘expertly blended by Marks & Spencer’, it wasn’t that expert.

Perhaps the nicest of the budget whites was a **Gavi, Quatro Sei 2008 (€9.99). Clean, smart, modern winemaking of the highest order, I’d definitely buy this for summer drinking.

Abruzzo deserves our support at the minute but that’s far from the only reason to pick this €15.99 white. Rocco Pasettti of Contesa’s **Pecorino 2007 was, despite the name, in no way cheesy. Lemon and apple fruit in abundance, smoothed out by a touch of malo, an immensely interesting change from the usual suspects.

I wouldn’t have guessed the origin of the unoaked **2008 Macon Village from George Brisson in a blind tasting, it seemed more laid back and ‘northerly’. I actually preferred it to its neighbour, a €15.99 Chablis.

A couple of quite savvy and very different NZSBs. *Seifreid 2008 €12.49 could have been re-christened ‘Siegfried’ with its savage attack, my sort of Sauvignon Blanc, racy and mineral. *Flaxbourne 2008 €13.49 gave you some elegance and restraint for your extra euro, in the end it all comes down to what you prefer.

On to Oz, where we kicked off with M&S’s own Chardy 2008, nabbed from Brian Walsh of Yalumba where they know about these things. A quaffer, buckets of tinned fruit, but what could you demand for €6.49? The **Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2008, very traditional, up to 4 months on less then six in real French barrels produced a relaxed yet flavoursome, lean, clean €12.49’s worth. Might buy Her Indoors some of this, it’s right up her street.

The Las Falleras Rosé 2008 €6.49 was well bubblegumesque. *Le Froglet (is this ‘Franglais or what?) at €7.99 was rather better, fresh, bright and clean.

The VDP Ardeche Gamay 2008 cried out for food; the South African Maara Shiraz 2008 was slabby and slightly mucky; I don’t do Pinotage – all I can say is that the Houdamond, at €13.99 won’t attract many admirers, other than those who like the smell of burning rubber I can’t help attributing to this grape. Okay, Houdamond is well made and it’s bush vines and oak barrels (American) but, in the end, it’s still a bit Formula One.

Fellow taster Martin (Moran) asked me “Why does this cost €35?”. All I could say was “That’s what a single-estate Rioja Reserva from a reputed producer in a good vintage fetches”. That said, personally, I’d give the Contino 2004 a miss there’s better stuff around for less money. And avoid the 2003 if you see it.

The Paradiso Carmenere 2008 is ‘vibrant’ all right. Trouble is the tannins are green as your favourite rugby shirt. The new *Vinalta Malbec 2008 is a nicer drink for €3 less, a genuine bargain at €6.99.

Nicest red in the tasting for me was the ***Nebbiolo 2007 €16.49) from Renato Ratti (available from ‘major stores’ so you probably won’t see it everywhere.) Understated, a class act and full of character. You could safely squirrel this away too.

Of the two Pinot Noirs on show, I preferred the **Tasmanian 2007, a typically relaxed and mellow production by Andrew Pirie of Tamar Ridge. Worth every penny and then some of €12.49. The *Clocktower 2007 (€16.49) was a typically exuberant production from Ben Glover and the guys at Wither Hills in the “Hey, let’s set out our stall and see how much fruit, how many nuances we can squeeze out” manner. All a bit OTT really, still a tad one-dimensional like many New Zealand Pinot Noirs away from the top echelon and, to my mind, this uncompromising treatment does take a little of the unbridled fun out of Pinot in an “I Can’t Believe it’s not Shiraz” manner. Bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but I’m sure you’ll get what I mean.

To conclude, a fine and extremely good value Eiswein, big mouthful and that’s not only the name – **Darting Estate Weissburgunder Eiswein, €17.99

Not a bad stab at budget fino with a €7.99 Fino Dry Sherry plucked from Williams & Humbert – interesting pistache and smokey bacon nose; chill the hell out of it and consume at a sitting with whitebait, tapas or somesuch. The Extra Dry White Port (from Guimarens, a good house) was by no means extra dry within the context we’d understand. Tasty though. The Pink Port from the same stable won’t I fear, win many friends. Except maybe as a cocktail mixer, it takes some comprehending. What’s the point of bubblegum that you can’t blow bubbles with?

My recommendations  indicated with an *, rated * to ***

Superquinn Italian Sale

Just had this from SQ

OVER 50 Italian wines reduced to €5.00 at Superquinn, this weekend only

“From Thursday 18th to Sunday 21stSeptember shoppers will be able to stock up on their favourite Italian wines* at up to 80% off the normal retail price, with a further 5% off when they purchase any six bottles.

Over 50 wines are included in the clearance, selling at €5 strictly while stocks last.

Superquinn’s end of summer clearance offers a huge range of wines that usually retail from €5.49 right up to €30.59, all retailing for just €5 a bottle this weekend,

included in the sale are:

_

Tommasi Valpolicella Amarone, €5.00 (Normal RSP €30.59)

This is a classic Amarone, with dark morello cherry fruits layered over a raisin fruit core, pure elegance and class.

Castello D’Albola Chianti Classico, €5.00 (Normal RSP €24.49)

This Chianti comes from the heartland of the Chianti region in Tuscany, with woodland and cherry flavours with a dark smoky background.

_
Marques de Collavini Pinot Grigio, €5.00 (Normal RSP €12.99)

Italy is the heartland of Pinot Grigio which is fast becoming one of the most popular styles of white wine in Ireland._ This wine is crisp with green apple flavours and a hint of nuttiness on the finish.

Casa Mia Organic Grillo, €5.00 (Normal RSP €8.99)

Sicily has become one of the heartlands of organic wine, with its beneficial climate negating the need for the use of chemicals._ Grillo is indigenous to Sicily and offers rounded melon flavours that can age.

*A limit of 6 bottles per customer will apply

**Sparkling wines are not included in the sale

COMMENTS ABOVE ARE SUPERQUINN’S NOT MINE. PERSONALLY I HAVE NO TIME FOR AT LEAST 90 PER CENT OF ITALIAN PINOT GRIGIO – ALMOST EVERY EXAMPLE I’VE EVER TASTED WAS BLAND AND CHARACTERLESS.

AT THE SAME TIME, I THOUGHT THIS INFO WAS WELL WORTH PASSING ON.

THE AMARONE, IN PARTICULAR, LOOKS A BIT OF A BARGAIN – Ernie

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IL Primo

What’s the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant? Do I hear “a cup of coffee”? Right. So why is 90 per cent of Dublin restaurant espresso absolute shite? And how come Italian restaurants are no more immune from delivering a decent cup than the rest, when Italy is supposed to be the home of espresso?

Okay, so I’m picky. I love my espresso. I like to see it made properly, bitter but not headache-inducing; hot, but not scalding; with a thick cushion of crema sitting on top. And I like the coffee in the cup, not streaking the outside of it. Is that too much to ask of any restaurant? I think not. Anyhow, rant over.

Last night Wee Tam and me were in Il Primo in Montague Street which, according to the word on the street, specialises in Tuscan cooking. It’s a restaurant I used to eat in quite a lot some years ago until I got fed up of being bloody patronised by the bloody patron. Latterly it’s been taken over the the chef and the manager who seem to be continuing the trend of pack ’em in informality.

Decent bread and flavoursome olive oil got the evening off to a good start. From the wine list, which held nothing of any note until you got way up into the forties we selected a red from Bolgheri, at e35 overpriced for what it was. . Maybe it was the ‘trip round the vineyard’ aspect of this bottle that intrigued me, with no less than five grape varieties involved. The waiter wasn’t much help in assessing its likely quality. In the event it proved to be fine with food but during the gap between main and dessert it started to bore the butt of me. I’d happily have given away the last glass and a half.

Every one of the half-dozen or so pasta options was available as starter or main. I opted for the oxtail, braised in Barolo with papardelle, which I’d heard was something of a signature dish along with the crab lasagne. I sat back, trying to imagine how it would be presented. In the event the oxtail had been prised off the bone and strings of it mingled with the pasta. It was quite dry. I’d imagined something more moist and juicy, unctuous even. The pasta itself, made on the premises, was immaculate. Tam chose a pan-fried marinated sirloin steak, which came with a rocket and parmesan salad. The mini-sirloin was a fine bit of meat, nicely cooked and Tam was still enthusing about it on the way home.

For the main course I took the boiled wing of ray, one fish I really love. It came prettily presented with what seem to be pukingly termed these days ‘sun blushed’ tomatoes, artichoke hearts and potato wedges; the last, I surmised, parboiled in stock before being finished off in the fry pan. The fish was marginally overcooked. Tam continued his dead animal fest with a big portion of melt-in-the mouth cider-braised belly of pork. He thought it fabulous.

It’s when it comes to dessert that Italian restaurants start to struggle. Italians as a race are not mad into desserts and their native restaurants don’t generally get beyond offering some anonymous chocolate cake, cantucci biscuits with vin santo, panna cotta if you’re lucky and… here it comes… that old banger, tiramisu. There was no panna cotta so I took the last option.

I’ve had more terrible tiramisus in Dublin than Gordon Ramsay has spat dummies. The only outstanding one was at Nonna Valentina. Il Primo’s was very fair and were there ever an Irish tiramisu olympics it could be a contender for silver. Tam opted for the cheese and was not impressed, particularly with the biscuits which looked and tasted like a yellow pack version of Tuc. The cheese selection comprised two tiny wedges, Dolcelatte and Pecorino and a sawn-off end of a goat cheese log. It drives me crackers (sorry) when restaurants don’t take a pride in their cheese. There’s no need for a vast selection; three or four in prime condition with some agreeable biscuits will suffice. Concerning the coffee, I’ve perhaps said enough. I gave them a second stab at getting it right but the replacement was only marginally better.

Il Primo is essentially a collection of three rooms. There’s a tiny area downstairs, visible from the street and adjacent to the kitchen. Intimate, no. Entertaining, yes. The rooms above are fine but at the foot of the stairs there seems to be an inordinate amount of clutter that you have to struggle by. The naked tables are too close to each other for comfort, the waiter has to indulge in vertical limbo dancing to get around without jostling the food off peoples’ plates and the furniture itself is utilitarian. Not that I’ve anything against spartan dining except…

..the bill came to €133. About average, you might say, for a night out in Dublin. But when, for another €30, two of you can have 3 courses and a bottle of wine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, with pristine starched linen, top-class delft and glassware, scrupulously trained waiters and the services of an ace sommelier, Il Primo and its ilk begin to look like less than value for money.
The damage: €133, ex service for 3 courses, coffees, 1 bottle wine.

IL Primo, Montague Street, Dublin2 Tel:

Ambience: **
Service: ***
Quality: ***
Value for Money: **1/2
Overall: **1/2

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Carluccio's

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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Italy for The Gourmet Traveller

Written by an American opera buff who went to Italy to study and hung on in there.
A great read – even if you’ve never been to Italy and don’t intend to go the book will get under your skin and might persuade you. Checked it out on three towns I know – Alba/Siena/Ravello and its pretty sound especially on the latter – not surprised as this man. 40-odd bonus recipes. Covers: restaurants, markets, food fairs, bookstores, gourmet shops, cafes, vineyards, farms, producers, cookery schools etc, rambling narrative by a guy who’s an even bigger glutton than me.
Where it doesn’t hang together is, if he doesn’t like a place he restricts it to two or three lines – he must really hate Sorrento it gets line and a half. Overall pretty good though.
Kyle Cathie, stg14 Buy it when it hits the street in early April. Mind you, it’s a bloody big heavy book – you wouldn’t want to be taking it backpacking – it weighed 3lbs plus on my kitchen scales!
RATED ****

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