Pacino's 18 Suffolk Street Dublin 2: A taste of my childhood
If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll know that I rarely get excited when I review 'Italian' restaurants. The reason is that I continue to believe that there's no reason why the food served in Italian restaurants should be any different from what you'd get in Italy.
Today's logistics means that Italian ingredients are available to restaurateurs easily, so there's no excuse for not having the right ingredients.
Over the years, I've talked to restaurateurs and I've asked them why they don't have authentic Italian dishes on their menus. The answer is invariably, "We give people what they want." That's why you'll find penne with cream and chicken breast on Irish Italian menus, but never in restaurants in Italy.
But I can't help feeling that the more the Irish go abroad, the more they'll start to look for dishes that they got when abroad.
It can be done, but it's not easy. You can go to Enniscorthy and eat in Via Veneto, where Paolo Fresilli has a completely authentic menu, or you could try Noi Tre in Dublin, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.
Other than that, your choices are very limited.
A little more than a year ago, I got truly excited when I ate in Pinocchio in Ranelagh. The chef at the time was Luca Mazza, and he had put together a really authentic Italian menu. I ate in Pinocchio exactly as I would have in Italy.
Since then, Luca has moved, and now he's to be found in Pacino's, in Dublin's Suffolk Street. Pacino's has been there a while, but, since his arrival, Luca has been busy changing the menu from the standard Italo-Irish fare to a more authentically Italian menu.
I was in Dublin to meet Adam Hankin, who works with Living Social, a website that offers its members all manner of daily deals. I wanted to talk to him about restaurants and meeting in one seemed a good idea, so we arrived in Pacino's for an early supper.
Inside, it's very spacious; there's a vaulted ground floor, a downstairs and an upstairs. The decor isn't particularly themed, but there are Italian posters on the walls. Otherwise, there's exposed brickwork, some brass, and bric-a-brac of the kind you find in pubs.
We got the menu and I was happy to see that they've put in a system whereby authentic Italian dishes are marked with an asterisk. That allows people to know exactly what they're ordering. You may happen to like pasta with cream and chicken breast, but you should also know it's not an Italian dish.
We decided that we'd pick genuinely Italian dishes, so Adam started with gnocchi with Gorgonzola, a real classic, and I started with a dish of pasta and cannellini beans.
We followed with lasagna for Adam and saltimbocca for me.
There's a decent wine list in Pacino's, lots of wine by the glass and most of the wines are priced between €20 and €30, which I like to see. We chose a Chianti Classico at €23 and a bottle of mineral water.
The starters arrived and I have to say the gnocchi were superb. It's very easy to get gnocchi that are as hard as bullets, but these were melt-in-the-mouth and covered with a nicely reduced cream sauce.
Have you ever seen the movie 'Ratatouille'? There's a scene where the restaurant critic Anton Ego tastes a dish and is instantly transported to his childhood. Well, that happened to me here.
My pasta and beans, a dish that was a staple in Italy for centuries, took me back to my childhood, when I'd eat that dish cooked by my grandma. Simple, nourishing and delicious, it's a dish that cannot fail to please.
The main courses arrived, Adam's lasagna and my saltimbocca. I looked over at Adam's plate and saw a square of lasagna with vertical edges. That's not a good sign, because it shows you at once that the lasagna was made by traying-up uncooked lasagna sheets with the sauces.
You can find recipes that tell you to do this, but it's wrong. It means that the starch, which would normally come out in the cooking water, remains in the pasta and that makes for a stodgy dish. "How's your lasagna?" I asked Adam. "A bit dry," was the answer.
No such problems with my saltimbocca, which seems to have found its way on to a lot of menus recently. It was exactly right and very good, making use of the excellent Irish-produced rose veal.
It comprised three pieces of veal, each topped with a slice of prosciutto and sage leaves, held together with a cocktail stick and sauteed with wine. If you order it in Rome, where the dish comes from, that's precisely what you'll get.
We finished with a couple of good espressos, which rounded the meal off nicely.
I've been complaining for years that proper Italian food is hard to find in Dublin, but Pacino's fills that gap. I spoke to chef Luca after this meal and he told me there are more changes to come, including the lasagna.
Actually, the one dish of pasta with beans would have been enough to leave me more than happy, but the excellent gnocchi and saltimbocca were the icing on the cake.
If this meal proves anything, it's the importance of following chefs as they move from restaurant to restaurant. When you find a chef who cooks to your liking, you have to be prepared to follow.
Our meal came to a modest €71.60, excluding the excellent service.