Paolo Tullio: Food made with real amore
Restaurant Review: That's Amore, 107 Monkstown Road, Monkstown, Dublin. Tel: 01 284 5400
If you've read this column before, you'll know that one of the things I complain most about is the quality of Italian restaurants. Look down any listing of restaurants and you'll see that 'Italian' makes up the largest single group. So it's not the quantity, it's the quality.
What grinds my gears is the lack of authenticity. It was just about excusable 30 years ago when the proper ingredients weren't available. When you couldn't get buffalo mozzarella, you used that Danish stuff called 'mozzarella' that had the texture of soap. Corn oil replaced olive oil, strong flour replaced type 00 flour, and so on.
When you do that, the resulting dish is going to taste way different from the original. A good example is Caprese salad, a dish made of very few ingredients: buffalo mozzarella, basil leaves and ripe tomatoes drizzled in olive oil are all you need. But if you use three-week-old cow's-milk mozzarella, dried basil (or, worse, pesto), unripe greenhouse tomatoes and drizzle the lot with corn oil, you'll end up with a dish that tastes nothing like what it's supposed to.
And that was the tip of the iceberg. It was commonplace to see classic dishes listed on menus that were made like this. The ingredients were ersatz and often quite simply wrong. But when people had never had the original, it was easy enough to palm them off with something else.
Times, however, have changed. People have travelled, they have eaten Italian food as it should be, and these days there's a market for the genuine and the authentic. Maybe not a large market, but it is there, as this week proved to me.
I'd been hearing about a new Italian restaurant in Monkstown; small, but authentic. I set out with Marian to find out if there was any truth in this. I knew it was near Goggins pub, so we parked in Monkstown Crescent and walked towards Goggins. As we approached the row of shops leading up to Goggins, I heard a voice call, "Hello, Paolo". Turned out to be chef Johnny Cooke and his wife sitting outside That's Amore.
It also turned out that That's Amore was what we were looking for. A waiter came outside and I asked for a table for two. "I'm sorry," he said. "We're completely full." I could see that was true. Inside, there was a tiny space with room for 18 seats, all occupied. Outside, there was a single table for two with Johnny and his wife.
"No problem," said Johnny, "we're just leaving." And that's how we got a table.
There's a short menu and it's fairly priced, so we picked our dishes quickly enough – pasta all'Amatriciana for Marian and an aubergine parmigiana for me, followed by a capricciosa pizza for Marian and gnocchi alla Gorgonzola for me.
We didn't order any wine, but instead ordered sparkling water. It came in an elegant receptacle that looked like a wine bottle. It was called Filetti and had a handsome silver label, on the bottom of which it said in Italian 'decidedly fizzy'. I burst out laughing, because when I'm Italy I'm always looking for sparkling water as we understand it here. What Italians call 'sparkling' has just the tiniest amount of gas, creating few and tiny bubbles. Filetti was properly sparkling and, on reading the label, I discovered that it comes from Frosinone, the province I come from.
Of all the dishes we had that night, Marian's starter was the star. Amatriciana is a classic sauce made with tomatoes, pecorino cheese and guanciale, or cured pork cheek. It's a dish from the region of Rome and it has been given official status as a traditional dish of Lazio. It's also a dish on nearly every menu in my part of Italy, so when I tell you this dish in Monkstown was as good as any I've ever eaten in Italy, you should be amazed. I certainly was.
My parmigiana came hot and steaming in its own little oven dish and it, too, was well done. The layers of aubergine and bechamel, the tomato sauce and the mozzarella all combined well to make this dish yet another classic.
Between our starters and our main courses we got a small plate of flat bread, in Roman pizza bianca, which we ate with a few slices of three-year-old prosciutto. It was delicious; it was one of those Parma hams that wasn't salty, but instead almost sweet to the taste. It was light in colour and in texture – things that are difficult to achieve in the making. It was a perfect example of what Parma ham should be.
A very large pizza arrived in front of Marian and I could almost watch her appetite disappear as she looked at it. The capricciosa is my favourite pizza, with a topping of mozzarella, tomato, mushrooms, artichokes, cooked ham, prosciutto, olives and olive oil. This one had the classic Roman variant of the addition of a boiled egg. It was well made and very good, but we ended up taking most of it home with us.
My dish, the gnocchi with a Gorgonzola sauce, was a simple dish to prepare. This sauce is made with butter, cream and cheese and can be done quickly. But simple or not, this was done well and I enjoyed every one of the tasty and fattening gnocchi.
Out of a sense of duty, we ordered a dessert to share, a tiramisu. It arrived in a glass, which is not traditional, but the traditional ingredients turned out to be there and between us we finished most of it.
We ended our meal with a tea for Marian and an espresso for me, which brought our bill to €59.85.
On a budget
The best thing to have on a budget is a pizza. They cost around €14, but they're really large, maybe 14in across. They're also well made and well filled, so they are value for money, too.
On a blowout
Try to eat three courses. If you have an average appetite that's not so easy, as the portions are generous. With starters around €8, mains around €14 and desserts €6.50, you'll get change from €30.
Genuine Italian cooking at last.
The lack of space.