A true Italian taste
Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30
Last week I found genuine Italian tastes and artisan products in Pizza e Porchetta, something that doesn't happen very often. Imagine my surprise then, when this week I found more. Maybe there's a real change happening – just maybe the days of ersatz Italian and bad versions of recipes are finally coming to an end.
It's arguable that this day had to come. As more people travel abroad, they're not so easily fobbed off with bad versions of continental cuisine. Those restaurateurs who thought they could pass off virtually any plateful of stuff as 'Italian' cookery may find their days are numbered. Real Italian cookery and genuine artisan products are here to stay.
This week I went to Etto and there's a fair amount of social media buzz about the place. There's a reason for the name: etto in Italian means 100 grammes. It's the basic unit of purchase at the market – you buy three ettos of prosciutto, two ettos of salami and so on. And because much of the menu in Etto is a tasting plate with cheese or charcuterie which comes in ettos, there you have the reason for the name.
I arrived with Gerard Carthy of Taste of Ireland and his daughter, Abigail, who is studying for her degree in food science.
Etto is on Merrion Row, close to the corner of Ely Place where an Indian restaurant used to be. The new decor is minimalist and the front part of the room has plain tables and chairs while the rear has a bar and a couple of counters where people can sit on stools.
We were given a dinner menu, which had the day and date on the top of it. That, for me, is a good sign: if they change the menu daily, they're probably using what's fresh and good in the market.
If you read last week's review, you'll have heard me sing the praises of regional artisan products such as bottarga, guanciale and porchetta. This week, I'll tell you about lardo di Colonnata and polenta. Lardo, as its name suggests, is pig fat. But it's been given gourmet treatment. First, it's rendered, filtered and cleared, then it's left to age in white marble vats before it's cut into small sections like bars of soap. If you like the taste of the fat that surrounds a slice of Parma ham, you'll love lardo. It's at its best when it's used as flavouring, or wrapped around something, or even just placed atop a steak and allowed to melt. It simply adds a great taste.
The dinner menu at Etto is quite short: first there's half-a-dozen "small plates" listed, then four "large plates", then sides, then desserts.
We decided to treat the small plates as starters and the large plates as main courses, and so between us we ordered eel and pork croquettes, smoked cod roe and mackerel tartare as our starters.
The pork croquettes were very successful, mixed with smoked eel. Not a combination I've come across before, but one that worked well. The roe too make a good starter, my only reservation being that the mackerel tartare was too sweet for my palate. I would have preferred a more savoury blend of tastes.
We ordered three of the four main courses, choosing from the malfatti, the black sole, the neck and loin of Sika deer and the beef featherblade. Malfatti translates as "badly made" and refers to a kind of hand-cut pasta where every piece is a different shape from the others. These came with a very tasty sauce made of egg yolk, chanterelles and sage. The black sole was on the menu at €25, probably the cheapest I've seen it.
The venison dish came with today's obligatory beets (to which I'm slowly becoming converted) and good old-fashioned champ, while the featherblade – one of the less expensive cuts – came with bone marrow and polenta.
Both Abigail and Gerard were suspicious of the bowl of polenta, mainly because of many unhappy experiences of dishes presented under that name. But what was in the bowl was exceptional. I told my two companions that if polenta always tasted like this, everyone would eat it with pleasure. They both really liked it, possibly because it had been made with a lot of butter and Parmesan.
One of the side dishes we had was another Italian staple, brocoletti. These are the spears that come from the brassica plant and they're about the size of wild asparagus. In Italy you'll get them quickly blanched, then tossed in a pan with oil and garlic. Here they came grilled and tossed with lardo, which was also a very successful way of presenting them.
Having enjoyed the first two courses, we had to order desserts. We got two: the bitter chocolate pot and the prunes served with mascarpone. The first was good, reminding me of a 1970s dish called Death by Chocolate, but the extremely simple prunes with mascarpone was the hands-down winner. It was really delicious, proving that you don't have to be complex to be good.
A tea for Abigail, an Americano for Gerard and an espresso for me brought the meal to an end and a bill for €136.