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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

Pizza Progress

Well, ‘Gianluca’ is up and running.

Well, not quite pizza ready. He needs to be fired up a few more times to ‘cure’ the oven walls and I’ve got to put another couple of coats of Aquaseal (a breathable water-resistant sealant) to protect him from the vagaries of the Irish weather.

But nearly ready to go.

pizza 1pizza 2

Pergola is replacement for one that rotted. Will have new vines and clematis over the top soon, hopefully. Black thing under cover on left of top pic is ‘Ned’ our big old Aussie gas bbq. String round chimney is temporary solution until I get a s/s strap made up.

Pizza Oven – that’s amore!

It was Leslie Williams, my cookery cohort at The Evening Herald who convinced me that having a wood-fired pizza oven of my very own would be the midlife crisis project for 2010. Leslie had already been down the track, with a French guy who built him an adobe one, mud and clay, in the back garden. I’d eaten the pizzas and bloody good they were too.

Not that I needed much convincing, as I’d seen Australian master baker Kingsley Sullivan perform culinary wonders with one of these ovens at the great Food & Wine symposium tasting Australia some years ago. Tasting Australia 2010 takes place in Adelaide from 28th April to 7th May. If you are down under at the time, make sure you get there. It’s enormous fun and a great opportunity to learn from famous chefs and wine writers. First off, of course, I had to convince Sibella who, amazingly was far less anti than I expected. But then she loves the garden and has always had an eye for things alfresco. Next came sourcing and here I went about things in my usual thorough, some say ‘micro-picky’ manner. The UK, having more than its fair percentage of yuppies and, indeed, keen cooks, seemed a good place to start. I found a couple of vendors, one of whom was basking in the afterglow of having built an oven for Jamie Oliver.  Theirs, however, were expensive and I subsequently found the same ovens on the websites of their Italian manufacturers far cheaper, even with the hefty €300 quote (plus €150 for constructing a pallet).

Many of these people were extremely helpful and in particularly, I’d like to single out for praise Valoriani who translated and answered all my probably daft questions with infinite patience. I was very tempted to one of their ovens, a mini-sized one with a patent fire system (the fire was lit in a chamber underneath the cooking floor) and an attractive cast iron door. However the aperture through which the oven was loaded was letter-box shaped. Fine for pizzas, but not much else. I envisaged loading a loaf of bread and being unable to extract it after the dough had risen! Still, this oven was pretty…  http://www.valoriani.it/eng/index.php#/2Prodotti

At this point, a gentleman from Manchester with whom I’d previously been in touch came on the phone. He sounded excited, like he’d been beach-combing and found a treasure chest of Spanish dubloons. “Ernie! I’ve cracked it!” He was in Verona at an exhibition and had found a way of stopping water coming back down the chimney, apparently every pizza oven owner’s nightmare. He just had to tell someone. I signed the order and sent the funds by bank transfer that afternoon. How could I not. Ian (still don’t know his surname) is one of life’s enthusiasts. He runs a company called Terrcotta Warehouse and has an agency for an Italian pizza oven constructed from high-tech refractory materials (which means, in lay terms, that you can fire it up to Dante’s Inferno heat and it won’t crack). His website http://www.terracottawarehouse.co.uk is choc-a-bloc with information and his prices are reasonable. What’s more, as I later found, he has absolutely no objection to being used as a one-man hotline whenever constructurally-challenged me got into difficulties with the concept or failed to read his informative sheets.

Ian has also developed a patent rendering system for keeping moisture out of the oven which can be a serious problem in northerly latitudes – “Ernie, you’ll appreciate this. It’s like Goretex for ovens”. The system is called ‘Segrelime’ and was used in the construction of my ‘Gianluca’ – Why ‘Gianluca’? It’s an old nickname, bestowed on me by customers when I was cheffing for a living after a fancied resemblance to Gianluca Vialli. It was going to be ‘Pavarotti’ – big chest, take a look at the pics, but ‘Gianluca’ eventually won the naming contest.

There are photos of ‘Gianluca’ here – in various stages of construction from post-inception to near completion.  We decided not to build a dinky little house around it. There’s a good forum for pizza oven addicts at http://www.fornobravo. com but some of the pet projects thereon  look like mini versions of builders’ Midlands ‘mansiuns’ from the Worst Excesses of the Celtic Tiger era RIP. At present my new cooking gizmo  awaits its final coat of render, before being cured and fired up.

Roll on the first home-made Margherita!  ps a couple of the pics are out of synch but I can’t suss out how to remedy this. It should be obvious that the brick courses for the plinth are laid on the concrete foundations. A few acknowledgements: Thanks to Christy and Colin for building ‘Pavarotti’ and putting up with me hovering; trying, in my inept fashion, to contribute to the construction; and generally getting in the way. To Leslie Williams and Kingsley Sullivan for the inspiration. To the Dark Lady of My Sonnets for encouragement and support and keeping me in cappuccinos while I laboured.