Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Terra Madre, Dublin 1
The great French gastronome Curnonsky had a dictum -- 'things should taste of what they are'.
At first sight it looks a little banal, but it's profound enough.
If you've ever been handed a perfectly fresh wild sea trout which was smothered in a pungent sauce, then the wisdom of Curnonsky's dictum becomes evident.
Really good cooking is honest; it treats the raw ingredients with respect. It's also true that the more time you spend sourcing the raw ingredients, the less time will be needed in the preparation of them.
This is the philosophy that underpins Italian cooking. What matters above all else is getting the right ingredients. If a dish needs tomatoes, then you have to find the very finest tomatoes that you can; the most ripe, the most flavoursome, the most perfumed.
Italians take pride in their skill at sourcing. You'll hear people say things like, "I've found a shepherd in the mountains who makes amazing pecorino".
This carries far more kudos than saying, "I've found a great new cheese in the supermarket".
I know people who think nothing of driving more than 100 miles to get fresh mozzarella for a dinner party. That may seem extreme, but it's no more than taking sourcing seriously.
Every summer when I go to Italy, there's an annual tradition that I love. My friend Graziano grows three or four varieties of tomato every year, and then we sit in his kitchen and do a tomato tasting.
Last year we tasted San Marzano, Pera d'Abruzzo and Rio, all very good tomatoes, dusted with a little salt and dressed with Graziano's own olive oil. But for firmness of flesh, depth of flavour and amazing perfume, the Rio variety won hands down.
Nobody in Italy thinks that two men sitting down to a tomato tasting is odd. Everyone understands that finding the best when it comes to food is a worthwhile pursuit.
All this sets the background for this week's review, which began with a conversation with Caitriona McBride, the director of the last series of 'The Restaurant'.
Caitriona is passionate about good food and when she said she'd found a good Italian restaurant, I listened carefully. It was called Terra Madre and was on Bachelor's Walk. We arranged to meet there for dinner.
You could miss Terra Madre very easily. It's in a basement and it's not very well signposted. I walked right past it, but found it on the next pass.
Inside it's very small and very plain. Tables and chairs that are mismatched, nothing to brighten the walls, it's minimalism to extreme. If you like comfort and luxury when you go out to eat, you can stop reading now.
The menu was a single sheet of A4 with a few dishes listed, all of which come out of a tiny kitchen. We started with crostini, one with wild capers and one with lardo di Colonnata. The wild capers were Sicilian, and they're a good example of sourcing.
In all Italian markets you'll find foraged foods. Italians are very keen on things such as mountain asparagus and wild broccoli which, like the wild capers, aren't cultivated. Someone has to go up to the mountains and gather them.
They were piled thick on the crostini and both Caitriona and I really liked them.
The other crostino was simply topped with a thin slice of lardo. Lardo di Colonnata is a Ligurian speciality and, just as its name suggests, it's lard. But not just any old lard. It's rendered and matured in marble vats and it ends up with a delicious taste.
A thin slice can add flavour to many things, for example as a topping on a steak, but it worked equally well here on a slice of toast.
We followed the crostini with two simple salads, but, again ,what set them apart from the usual was the choice of ingredients.
A very good olive oil; not just any onions but onions from Tropea, generally agreed to be the best available in Italy; and not just Parmesan but 36-month-aged Parmesan.
I probably don't need to repeat this, but I will. If you use the finest ingredients, you'll get a good result.
There were two pasta dishes on the menu: pasta with a Calabrian tomato sauce and pasta with a pheasant ragu. There was also a dish of gnocchi with rabbit and peppers, so I picked that and Caitriona picked the pasta with the Calabrian sauce.
Both of these turned out to be well made and, like everything else we'd eaten, full of flavour. What I liked about these dishes was that they tasted authentic. They tasted exactly as these same dishes would have tasted in an Italian trattoria. Again, the ingredients were good.
Caitriona's pasta was cut alla chitarra, which means you end up with square-sectioned pasta. It's a technique that's common enough with handmade egg-based pastas.
Perhaps a little greedily, we then decided on desserts, which turned out to be a multi-layered chocolate cake. It had a distinctly Italian taste to it which I tried to pin down. My best guess is that it was the chocolate itself.
We ended the meal with a couple of espressos. They were as good as I've ever been given. They arrived in a glass demitasse, which allowed us to see the thick, deep crema on top of the coffee. Why this is normally absent I really can't understand, but I'm always delighted when it's there.
Our bill came to €82.50, which included a couple of glasses of house wine at €5 a glass.
If you like authenticity in food, good-quality ingredients and simple cooking that brings the qualities of those ingredients to the fore, then you'll like Terra Madre.
The name means Mother Earth, and if that has echoes of wholesomeness and honesty for you, then it's well named.
Walk, Dublin 1
Tel: 01 8735300
On a budget
You can get a dish of pasta here for €11.50, so it’s ideal for a budget meal. The house wine is €22 a bottle and a glass of it is €5.
On a blowout
That’s a bit hard to achieve given the menu, but if you have three courses like we did then you can cover most of menu between two people and you’ll end up spending about €60 on food for two.