I love Italian food precisely because it is that, Italian. It is beautiful, delicious, simple, coveted and nurtured, and spoken of with the same passionate pride as parents of a newborn baby. It is love. From the water that quenched thirsty hot tomatoes that grew to turn into passata to the cows that grazed in the fields of Lombardy to make milk for Taleggio cheese or the pigs that were reared to make us prosciutto to the olives grown for silky oils to make salads glisten. The food is grown, prepared and eaten with love and, importantly, with respect. I revel in seeing Italians and their unabashed excitement for their food. They seem to have an inherent, magical understanding for the absolute joy that can be had from the table, the things that are laid upon it, and those they love around it.
Here are some of my favourite spots for Italian food in Dublin.
President Michael D. Higgins adores Mamma Mia, and rightly so. I discovered the joys of this restaurant while I was working in Ornua as it is a stone’s throw from the front door on Grattan Street and remains one of my favourite spots for a quick bowl of pasta or superb pizza with a friend. I say one friend as a strong suggestion for your booking as it is teeny tiny and you are often sitting with the back of your chair kissing another. So don’t go if you are not a fan of people, or on a first date, or on a date that might get uncomfortable. Their daily specials are always superb, and anything on with gnocchi or gorgonzola is a winner. It is simple food executed superbly, the service is a bit clunky but they get away with it because they are gorgeous or Italian or both. And you know that Michael D. is getting just the same treatment, and that is something to love.
My dearly departed friend Paolo Tullio and I ate here three years ago and it was one of the loveliest evenings I have ever had. I was under pressure recommending an Italian to an Italian as I knew it had to be authentic, but thankfully, he loved it. Hearing him speak Italian to staff and the giddy spark in his eyes when the front of house brought him a taste of some olives that had arrived that day remains a cherished memory. Terra Madre is like getting a soothing supper in the bosom of the kitchen of the Italian grandmother you never had. If you like soft furnishings, linen tablecloths and matching cutlery, this is not the place for you. I think the owners say it best when they say their aim is to share their passion for their food and wine in an atmosphere that is simple and uncomplicated. I can still taste the wild boar ragu I had that night, and learning why the pasta had been cut in a certain shape, and the aged Parmigiano we got to try before dessert. Paolo was a person that taught me the gift of the Italian approach to cherishing food, ingredients, music and family. And for that I am always grateful.
Etto opened to much acclaim two years ago. The word ‘etto’ in Italian means 100 grammes, the basic unit for when Italians are buying food at the market. This is refined, excellent, inventive food with thoughtfully deft Italian dishes and touches that weave through your meal like a lost evening in Amalfi. The best Vitello Tonnato I have ever had was in Etto, a dish of papery thin veal with a creamy tuna flavoured mayonnaise sauce and capers. A dish that can be utterly awful, or can take you to Piedmontese heaven. I forgive them their menu of small plates and large plates, a personal dislike, because you can treat the small ones like starters and larger ones like main courses. And also because the food is just so disarmingly gorgeous.
Steps of Rome
‘Will we grab a quick bite before we go? Somewhere around Grafton Street?’ This conversation will usually end in the answer ‘Steps of Rome’. My dear friend Carol Ann Conlon from Long Island who lives here introduced me to this restaurant tucked off Grafton Street. She knows good Italian and was on to it long before me, so I took her recommendation and am now equally besotted. It’s only got a few tables so it can be quite difficult to get in, and when you taste the food it’s clear why it’s full. They have some of the most pleasant and helpful staff I’ve ever encountered in Dublin. And the food, oh the food. Their mission is to serve the ‘best pizza in Dublin’ and while I’m still having fun trying to get to the end of that question, Steps of Rome are certainly in the running. Their spicy salsiccia pasta is exceptional. This is no frills, extremely reasonable and delicious Italian food.
This restaurant occupies a nostalgic little spot in my heart. Nico’s is nestled in a bustling corner at the traffic lights on Dame Street and you never know if it’s open or closed as the curtains are always closed. But it is. My Mom took me here for a special lunch while I was a student in D.C.U. She had been taken there for a special treat by our Dublin based cousin while she had been studying in Carysfort so I was smitten with the idea of it before I even crossed the threshold. My Mom has the Italian approach to food and family in her DNA, she adores Italian cuisine as much for its taste, as its ethos and the glory in sharing a table with a loved one. This restaurant was like walking into the good front room of my Granny’s house except with white linen table cloths and a pianist in the corner. Teetering on the edge of cheesy, but not caring, I was sweetly charmed by the waiter’s use of ‘bella’ peppered throughout the meal, although he was trying to flirt with Mom too. We shared bruschetta and Minestrone and Veal Milanese and pasta and red wine and it was one of the best afternoons I have ever had. It is a perfect little sanctuary from the bustle of Dame Street with good food and a warm atmosphere. And I’m fairly sure the pianist will do a cracking version of ‘That’s Amore’ if you ask nicely.
American journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron said ‘Secret to life, marry an Italian.’ I can see why.
Some others I have had great meals in: Dunne and Crescenzi