Refuel: Into Milano and out again **
What a lovely airy building the Baggot Street branch of Milano occupies. It used to be a bank. These days when people talk about some place that "used to be a bank", they do it in the kind of scandalous whispers normally reserved for erstwhile brothels or bedlams. Shameful places, banks.
Imagine for a moment that the Irish banking sector does actually collapse, what would become of all the unoccupied listed buildings they'd leave in their wake? Is it too extreme and post-apocalyptic to imagine a Milano on every street corner? While the Pizza Express group, of which Milano is a part, has no immediate plans for world domination, they are carving out a niche for themselves in Ireland. Last time I counted, there were 10 Milanos dotted around the capital and the country. Yet, down all the years I've donned the bib, this is the first time I've reviewed one.
Milano has apparently thrived without me, and I have managed to ignore, avoid and otherwise keep myself a safe distance from its door. A happy arrangement that would have prevailed if I'd let a sleeping dog lie. But I was born a meddler and so I stuck my nose into Milano's trough, and came away wishing I'd left well enough alone.
We went for a late lunch -- if there was a special lunch menu, it wasn't offered to us. At a glance, you're talking about paying up to €15.95 for a pizza, or €13.95 for a vegetarian salad of garlic mushrooms, mozzarella, and avocado. Surely there's a law against charging €13.95 for lasagne in the middle of the day? There should be.
Adding to my displeasure was the fact that Milano purports to be a family friendly restaurant. Why then was there no kids' menu available? Even if our 18 month old had a penchant for melanzane parmigiana, I'd be hard pressed to pay €12.95 for it.
Okay, so we'd give him some chips. But Milano, like Kevin Thornton, doesn't do chips. And there the similarity ends. We could give the baby some dough balls from the starter menu. Milano is all about dough. Dough sticks with the salad, bruschetta made with dough, and then there's the pizza dough: thin for the Romana pizza and thick for the Theo Randall pizzas. Theo Randall, incidentally, is a former River Café chef commissioned by Pizza Express to devise a menu of posh pizzas, thereby injecting class and kudos into the brand. Does it work? Well, that's between Theo and his conscience. All I can tell you is the thick sauce with crushed Santos tomatoes was quite good, but the base was tough. The toppings: a fair contingent of prosciutto and black olives, mozzarella that had been "hand-torn", as though that was a feat requiring great skill and exertion. Then there was rocket -- bales of coarse elderly rocket. Milano loves rocket almost as much as Milano loves dough.
It made a reappearance -- doused with sticky balsamic syrup -- alongside my porcini mushroom risotto, insolently priced at €7.95 for a starter portion. Not that I wanted any more of this sloppy gruel, reminiscent as it was of condensed mushroom soup, bulked up with rice, and an extravagant attitude towards salt. Sir's starter: the dough-based bruschetta was not worth €6.25, particularly since it mostly comprised flavourless tomatoes. The pesto was a poor substitute for fresh basil leaves and a glug of top-shelf olive oil.
Pollo verdure from the salad menu was presented in a chunky technicolor jumble, featuring pieces of roasted pepper and aubergine. The chicken was warm, moist and would have been quite tasty, if it wasn't bound with unctuous honey and mustard dressing -- with more of the ubiquitous balsamic syrup thrown in for added stickiness. Again there was rocket aplenty and, you guessed it, more dough.
Notwithstanding the exclusively Italian wine list, which is predictable, but moderately priced, Milano wasn't at all what I had anticipated. I thought it would be cheap -- it's not. I expected the service to be friendly and efficient -- one smiled at us, the others were indifferent. And, in the Baggot Street branch, at least, there's no kid's menu. It's a great pity that this Milano has perhaps the greatest unsung spot for alfresco dining in the city -- a leafy bank of the Grand Canal. Just don't go there expecting Venice. Or indeed Milan.