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