Passion for good food is recipe for happiness
Eileen Dunne and Stefano Crescenzi are still in love with food, and each other, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
'IF IT'S for you, it won't pass you by" is an old saying that certainly seems to have been the case with Eileen Dunne, and Stefano Crescenzi, who not only met and fell in love in a somewhat roundabout way but who revolutionised the concept of casual dining in Dublin.
I first interviewed Eileen when she and Stefano launched their fledgling 'Enoteca', Dunne & Crescenzi, in South Frederick Street when, as Eileen now looks back and says with a laugh, "I used to run in the back and do the washing up in a sink and then run back out front."
Eileen is Dublin through and through, having been brought up as one of seven children on Pearse Square in the city, but she was to travel a long way in life before ending up back in Pearse Square where she and Stefano now live with their family.
Not only do the couple run a string of restaurants under their Dunne & Crescenzi umbrella, including Bar Italia, L'Officina and Nonna Valentina, but Eileen has just produced a new book Dunne & Crescenzi, The Menu (Mercier Press, €19.50), showcasing the most popular dishes from the South Frederick Street restaurant and based on the foundations of Italian cooking. It has been a family venture, with daughter Federica Crescenzi doing the photography.
The couple met when they were both working for the United Nations in Rome in the late Eighties. Eileen was divorced with a young son, while Stefano had just returned to his native Rome, having worked in Mozambique for two years with an NGO.
"One of my friends in the office was always trying to fix me up," says Eileen, "but I had been down that road and wasn't interested, I was happy with my life. However, my friend persisted and called me saying she wanted to introduce me to Stefano Crescenzi, who was looking for English lessons! I said, 'I have a friend who will do that for you.'"
Anyway, it seems to have been fate because a few days later, Eileen says, she was in the canteen with another friend who said, "'We'll sit over there with Stefano Crescenzi, he's great fun!' We were never apart after that."
The couple had a lot in common: they love politics, food and wine.
"We used go all over Italy looking for good olive oils and other products. Stefano would always cook for me." They married and had three children, along with Eileen's son by her first marriage.
"By the early Nineties, I had left the United Nations and gone back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs again for Developing Corporations, but I was fed up because the corruption was disgusting. I didn't want to work and live this life in this environment so I said 'bye bye'," says Stefano. "So, there was the food interest, and in 1995 we sold the house at the beginning of the mortgage and came back to Ireland with very little money and four children."
They bought a house in Portmarnock, Co Dublin. "We spotted a newsagent's shop for sale in Sutton and we opened a newsagent and deli, importing wine and good olive oil in vats," says Stefano.
"It was lovely," adds Eileen. "People used bring their own bottles and fill up, but that would not be approved of by the health authorities now."
"All of these regulations kill creativity," says Stefano, recalling a village in Italy they used to visit each summer where the cows were moved from the village to higher, cooler plains on the local mountain.
"It kept the flies from annoying the tourists. The cows of the village would be moved up and tended by a farmer. You would go up the mountain to wooden chalets, you had to walk the last part for about an hour, and when you got there they would serve warm milk straight from the cow along with scrambled eggs and potato. It was delicious. Then one time we went and there was nothing there, it was all gone due to new EU regulations. They killed an economy and a tourist attraction because the locals couldn't afford to meet the standards required to make the cheese for one month in stainless steel vats."
It was eventually accepted by the EU that if a product had been made in a traditional method for over 20 years it was allowed continue, but anything new is subject to the regulations.
"They killed the creativity and it is the same thing here," Stefano points out. "Buffalo mozzarella is supposed to be eaten and preserved at room temperature, which in Italy is 10 degrees, but here regulations require that it is refrigerated below five degrees. You cannot feel the chewiness or creaminess of the mozzarella.
"Production of food should maintain a certain flexibility because you cannot start up a business in Ireland with all stainless steel as in a commercial kitchen on the first day. They are consigning all food to industry," says Stefano.
Stefano and Eileen moved their food business from Sutton to town and Stefano started selling in Temple Bar Market.
"It was hard work but great fun. We were looking for a place in town that wasn't too expensive and we found this place in South Frederick Street that used to be a lock shop. It had one counter to the front where you could stand and have a glass of wine, and we had a few seats and a couple of tables. We opened in November 1999, so we got all the Christmas trade which was fantastic, then January was dead and it was touch and go for six months. Then we started serving at tables, and another shop two doors away became available so we took on that shop."
Later they had the three shops all in one, and Dunne & Crescenzi took off. Around that time Stefano met David Izzo and they opened Bar Italia together. Now, between them they have Dunne & Crescenzi, L'Officina, and Bar Italia in various locations throughout Dublin and Kildare, including Sandymount, Dundrum Town Centre, Kildare Village Outlet, IFSC, Ormond Quay, and Nonna Valentina at Portobello. They employ 160 people -- 190 in the summer.
"When the recession came in 2008, we did have many sleepless nights because we do have mortgages and you think, 'What if nobody goes out to eat?' but thankfully it worked out fine and people still come out to eat," says Eileen.
"Actually the crises made us realise that expansion is not necessarily a benefit, to enjoy what we have and to make better what we have. It gave Eileen time to take a year out last year in Italy to do a Masters in Communications with Gambero Rosso in Rome," says Stefano.
Eileen adds: "It gave me the confidence to start the book, and when I came back I was full of ideas. Our prices are competitive and people can eat quality food for a decent price. All of these people doing deals are after us but I am not interested because people can come in for a bruschetta for €5.50 and I am delighted if people come in and spend €5.50. Everybody is welcome if they just want to come and have a cappuccino and read a book. We source a lot of Irish products. We buy all our fruit and vegetables, our fish, we bring our lamb in from the Ring of Kerry farmers. We buy Mrs G's jam by the pallet and smoked salmon from McConnell's, but people notice the difference. We produce our cakes and breads in the IFSC because it is a lunchtime destination. Our food has got better. We produce all our own chargrilled vegetables, our pesto, biscotti, all our cakes -- apart from the tiramisu and pannacotta which are made fresh in each restaurant."
Stefano likes to bring in the Italian produce direct from Italy from small producers: "Our holidays are always about sourcing new producers. We just found a wonderful girl in Tuscany doing Vino Nobile which has a three-glass rating from Gambero Rosso."
However, it is not always all good food in Italy. "We rented a house near the Coliseum and visited a trattoria which had lovely food where I used to go to with my parents when I was young. It was appalling -- all cheap supermarket produce, we could see them bringing it in," says Stefano.
Note to tourists: "You will only eat rubbish food for the tourists around the Coliseum! We have developed from restaurateurs to critics!" says Stefano.