Paolo Tullio: A serving of Philosophy
There's no doubt about it, it's easy to get set in your beliefs. Believe something for long enough and it begins to take on the attributes of absolute truth. It becomes a core belief, something that defines the very way you think.
So what do you do when you find something that shakes your belief? Ignore it and stick to your tenets, or accept that possibly there is another version of the truth?
Deep philosophical musings and gastronomy are not necessarily bedfellows, although you can find examples in the classical world when they were. My dilemma came this week when I went to meet Gerard Carthy for lunch in Il Posto, an 'Italian' restaurant on St Stephen's Green.
The last time I reviewed Il Posto was in January 1998, so by restaurant standards it's long-lived. I was the first Irish journalist to add my email address to my column and I ended up having a long email exchange with the chef there.
I maintained back then, as I still do, that the Italian culinary repertoire should be respected. That's to say, you don't mess with classic recipes. There's nothing wrong with experimentation and innovation -- indeed, it needs to be encouraged -- but if you change a classic recipe, then you should change the name as well. If you want to make saltimbocca with chicken instead of veal, and tomatoes instead of sage, that's fine; just don't call it saltimbocca.
I suppose that I invest a lot in that belief, simply because there are so few places where you can get authentic and good Italian food. Conversely, there are hundreds of outlets that call themselves Italian where the food is very far from authentic.
Sometimes, I feel like the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness, wailing, "This isn't authentic, it's a bastardisation -- it's Italo-Hibernian". But here's the point: is it necessarily bad just because it isn't authentic? That's the nub of this week's philosophical musings and it was prompted by a meal I quite enjoyed.
Il Posto is in a basement, but sunlight broke through the windows while we ate, so we didn't feel subterranean. The room is pleasing and the tables and chairs look like the ones you'd find in an Italian trattoria. The tables are well spaced and the room has an airy feel. The à la carte lunch menu has been designed for a one-plate meal, which I'd guess is what many lunchtime customers are looking for.
It's good value for money too -- no main course costs more than €12 and there are a dozen to choose from. There are four dishes that could be a starter: bruschetta, a soup, mussels marinière and meatballs. These last two can be had as small or large portions. There's also a 'market lunch' menu, which offers two courses for €16 or three for €20. Gerard decided to eat from that menu and I chose from the à la carte.
Although we weren't drinking, I did scan the wine list. It's a short list -- seven whites, eight reds and a few sparklers. It's a 100pc Italian list with some well-known wines and a few more unusual offerings, such as Dolcetto d'Ovada from the Piedmont, a wine I've only ever encountered in Ovada's Hotel Italia. Three whites and three reds are available by the bottle, the half carafe and the glass, but, despite these temptations, we stayed on the water.
Gerard started with the day's soup, a minestrone, and followed that with the oven-roasted sausages that came with a parsley and mustard risotto. I asked for a starter portion of the spaghetti Bolognese and followed that with pan-fried lamb's liver. A selection of breads arrived and we settled in to our sparkling water.
Gerard's minestrone looked very good, a deep tomato red and with plenty of different vegetables. I got a taste and liked the balance of flavours; I thought it was a well-made soup. I had the classic spag bol before me and the first thing I did was taste the sauce. It was good, properly reduced, not too much tomato and well balanced. My problem was with the spaghetti. Al dente is good, undercooked is not. Mine were so al dente they nearly crunched when I chewed them. Another two or three minutes in the pot would have been better.
The main courses were good. Gerard had two huge, fat Italian-style sausages on his plate, sitting on top of the risotto. Although they looked paler than traditional Italian sausages, they were very nicely flavoured with herbs and the risotto that underpinned them was well done -- creamy and luscious.
My lamb's liver had been cooked exactly as I like it -- caramelised on the outside and pink in the middle. It came with an onion sauce and herbed potatoes, which I also enjoyed. My first reaction was that the liver was a little under-seasoned, but there was salt on the table so that was easily rectified. All in all, two very good dishes, considering the price tag.
But it was with the dessert that I had my reservations. I'd ordered a tiramisu, a dessert that's become almost ubiquitous. And here's the thing: when I order a tiramisu, I know what to expect. I have a mental image already in my mind.
Now, what I got was a very tasty dessert, and it had the ingredients of a tiramisu, but it had been deconstructed and reassembled in a different order. So the lady fingers had been ground up and were part of the coffee mascarpone, which was served in layers with cream in a glass. It looked pretty, it tasted very nice, but it wasn't a tiramisu. It should be on the menu under another name, or perhaps 'tiramisu Il Posto style'.
We finished with an Americano and an espresso, which brought the bill to a very reasonable €43.40.
That has to be one of the better-value lunches I've eaten in Dublin, even if it wasn't as Italian as I'd have wished for.