I've always taken an interest in Wexford. For a provincial town of around 10,000 people, it has managed to place itself firmly on the international scene through its opera festival, which is quite an achievement.
Maybe it's that annual influx of people that has helped form its character, but there's another unusual facet of Wexford: it has a lot of good restaurants.
If you've read this column before, you'll know that I'm a fan of two Italian chefs in Wexford: Roberto Pons of Wexford and Paolo Fresilli of Enniscorthy. For a while now, I've been hearing reports of a new Italian restaurant in Wexford called Nonna Rosa, which means Granny Rosa's.
Generally, I go to new Italian restaurants with high hopes of finding good and authentic gastronomy and, nearly always, those optimistic hopes are dashed. By all accounts, Nonna Rosa is trying to create real Italian cuisine, so I asked John Boorman if he fancied a long drive on the off chance we'd get well fed. "Okay, let's do it," was his answer, so off we went on a misty night to Wexford.
Nonna Rosa, like many of Wexford's restaurants, is on the Main Street, which turned out to be miles from where I'd parked on the quays. Still, the walk gave us an appetite and we found the restaurant easily enough. It's quite small, seating about 30 people. It was warm and cosy and was full of people on a cold Thursday night. It must be doing something right, we thought as we surveyed all the occupied tables.
The restaurant is run by a young Italian couple. I discovered the man's name is Luigi, and he's from Naples. Luigi and his partner run the front of house together, and an Italian chef from Bari runs the kitchen. We got the menu and I scanned it to see what kind of food was on offer.
As is often the case, it was a mix of Italian dishes and dishes that are made to Irish specifications. So, for example, starters listed classics such as prosciutto and mozzarella, bruschetta, and mussels in a tomato sauce, as well as dishes such as prawns with pesto and cream, which I've never encountered in Italy.
After a little deliberation, John decided to have the bruschetta to start and followed that with one of the day's specials, which was pasta with lobster. I decided to eat the Italian way, and ordered a lasagna as a starter, following that with veal Nonna Rosa, described as being baked with Parmesan and cream.
Since Luigi was from Naples, we considered ordering a pizza, but when he offered to give us a taste of pizza, we settled on that.
The wine list was entirely Italian and quite short, with two producers -- Epicuro and Ponente -- making up most of the list. We settled on a red wine, a Salice Salentino from Epicuro, which turned out to be very good indeed and was listed at €23.
Apart from a couple of wines, everything on the list is either under €20 or just over it. A couple of bottles of sparkling water completed our drinks order.
Before we got our starters, we got a slice of simple mozzarella-covered pizza each and what are known as 'pizzette' in Italy -- little shapes of deep-fried pizza dough, which were hot and tasty and came with dips and some very good olive oil. We began to feel we were in good hands.
The starters arrived and John's bruschetta was simple and good. I could see at once that my lasagna had been properly made, and I'll tell you how I knew. To make a lasagna properly the pasta sheets should be cooked first, before the dish is assembled.
There's a shortcut that some restaurants take, and that's to tray-up the lasagna with uncooked sheets, letting them cook in the oven with the liquid in the sauces. Doing it like that is quick, but all the starch in the pasta remains in the dish and you get a very solid lasagna. When you cut it, you get a vertical edge, like a cliff. If you've cooked the pasta sheets before assembling the lasagna, it's floppier and you don't get a solid shape when you cut it; it flops down, just like the one on my plate.
Both of the sauces that were used in the lasagna, the ragù and the béchamel, were done well and tasted as they do in Italy.
The main courses were also successful. The lobster and tomato sauce on John's tagliatelle was really good, mainly because the tomato sauce had been reduced -- which intensifies the flavours -- just like my granny Luisa used to do. Reducing a sauce like this takes time and often restaurants don't bother, but if you want the sauce to be thick and rich, that's the only way to do it.
It had blended well with the flavour of the lobster and made a very successful dish. It was served with half a small lobster on top of the pasta, making an impressive dish. John was moved to remark that it was a really delicious sauce.
As to my veal dish, if you count calories, look away now. Thin slices of veal were served with a bubbling covering of melted Parmesan, cream and mozzarella. Not kosher, calorific in extreme, but very tasty.
All the dishes that we'd eaten had the distinctive flavour of Italy, the ingredients were right and the execution was as it should be. It was a meal that you could have had in Italy, although you wouldn't be able to get pasta with lobster in Italy for €16.50; you'd need to double that at the very least. We finished up with a couple of good espressos and left feeling that we'd been well served.
The bill too was very reasonable -- €83.65, not including service.