18 Suffolk Street, Dublin 2
Tel: 01 677 5651
Time to seek out this city's hidden gem
People say that when you live in a city you never really notice it. New Yorkers can live their whole lives without having visited the Statue of Liberty. Likewise, Dubliners can spend days hurrying from home to work to meetings with friends and family, head down, eyes on the footpath, just getting from one destination to the next, never noticing what's above street level. Hell, often not even noticing what's at street level.
So it came to be that I found it very difficult to picture exactly where on Suffolk Street the Italian restaurant Pacinos is located. I mentally slotted it into various spots on the street – was it beside the music shop? No. Beside Avoca? No. Eventually, when I went there, I was amazed to find it was prominently situated just at the bottom of Grafton Street. How had I never seen this place before? I ask the waiter how long the restaurant has been there. "Fifteen years," he says. Ouf! Sometimes I think I've been living my life in a bubble. How many times must I have passed this place and never noticed it?
Hundreds, surely. And how can it be that I have been in the secret password-gains-entry Karaoke place on the same street and yet have not managed to try this Italian joint?
Pacinos has (finally) come to my attention because they have recently acquired a rather special chef, the 'precociously Italian' Michelin-star winning Luca Mazza. Mazza was previously at the much lauded Pinocchio (the Italian restaurant nestled under the Luas station in Ranelagh) and before that he came from The Grand Hotel in Venice (which is where he got his Michelin star).
I sit back and sink into the sense of comfort offered by the tinkling jazz standards on the sound system and the warm light of the room.
The waiter is very attentive. Where would you like to sit? Would you like me to turn on the hot-air vent if you find the window seat too cold? You will find the restrooms downstairs. I play it safe and sit down the back, on a sort of dais, facing the charming bar. The menu is extensive and so we order some apéritifs while we are perusing it. I go for the masculine Negroni (€8.50), while my companion opts for a ladylike Bellini (€7.50) – we like to subvert our gender stereotypes, you see.
We're both freezing and in need of something to warm us up so we both go for soup to start.
I get the lentil and prawn soup (€11.90) and he gets the bean soup (€9.90). They arrive, steaming and delicious, with a hunk of fresh sourdough bread sitting on top, ready for dipping and mopping. Just what is required for a night like this.
The flavours are spectacular, everything is cooked to perfection and the texture and heat of the tomato base is just right. The starters are rapidly dispensed with and we order a bottle of wine, the Chilean Crucero Cabernet Sauvignon (€22), and our mains. I go for the traditional tortellini with ricotta and spinach in a tomato sauce (€13.90). The tang of basil and acidity of the tomatoes is splendid.
My companion has the steak and Italian sausage skewer (€18.90), which neutralises the femininity of his Bellini in one fell swoop. This too is cooked to perfection and the flavours complement each other wonderfully. Following this course we have to enforce an intermission as the food is so filling.
Intermission over, my companion reinforces the masculinity of his appetite by ordering a giant doorstop of apple pie with cream and I go for the tiramisu, which comes served in a little cappuccino cup.
It tasted just like the tiramisu my former Italian flatmate used to make. She told me it translated as 'lift me up' and it's easy to see why. The ingredients all work together to create a heavenly confection that lifted my spirits.
I don't manage to finish it all and the waiter is perturbed – was it okay? Did you not like it? I did, I tell him, I am just full.
He looks relieved that he will be able to tell the chef that this unfinished dessert has nothing to do with his talents. These Michelin-starred chefs can be so insecure.
By 10 o'clock, we are the only people left in the place, even the large party in the cellar downstairs – who, amazingly, made no impact on the sound upstairs – has cleared off.
By 10.45pm, the music has been turned off and our waiter asks if we could settle our bill as there is a serviceman waiting to repair some domestic appliance or other.
We haven't finished our wine, but no mention is made of that or any offer to put a cork in it and bring it home and, being precociously Irish, we make no complaint. Later on, I check the website and realise that the restaurant actually closes at 10pm on Sundays to Wednesdays, so instead of being poorly treated, we have actually been indulged to stay on quite a bit later than we should have.
However, the unusual mid-week closing times might be something worth taking note of or even worth mentioning to customers when they ring to make a booking.
For the rest of the week, Pacinos stays open remarkably late – until 2.30am.
Pacinos is an unassuming Italian restaurant that does not shout about its food. Perhaps its prominent position at the foot of Grafton Street ensures it does not need to.
Its décor suggests it is just another bistro in a town full of mid-level bistros. You have most likely passed it many times, as I have done, without even noticing it is there.
But once you have tried the food here, anyone who is a fan of simple and, more importantly, authentic Italian dining will fall in love with this place immediately and will return for more. Just maybe on a Thursdays, Friday or Saturday, so you can linger over your bottle of wine.
THE DAMAGE: €104.50, for two starters, two mains, two desserts, two cocktails and a bottle of wine
RECOMMENDED: Any of the traditional dishes, but the lentil soup and tortellini are particularly good
AT TABLE: Apparently, tourists
ON THE STEREO: Mood-lifting good-time jazz