An hour before I was due to meet Miss Belmullet 93 in Peppe Café, I texted to say I'd be late. It took her 15 minutes to respond. "ur not goin to believe it ... in del suite -- holdin' my baby! sorry, t x."
This is the risk you run when you invite a heavily pregnant woman to dine with you. I operate a 24-hour cancellation policy for reviews, breach it and you're in the sin bin for six months. But what a gazumper of an excuse! Apologies, I was giving birth. What was the point in penalising Miss Belmullet? She's under house arrest for the rest of the year anyhow.
The next day, I was still thinking about Miss B, and the amazing feat of pushing out her first born with something bordering on insouciance, when I decided to go to Peppe's with my own sprog. I recalled how his arrival was precipitated by 24 hours on the broad of my back, roaring for mercy.
Now, looking at his angelic little face in the rear view, I knew he'd demand three courses of ice-cream. Braced for a tantrum, it was a relief to see the shutters down on Peppe's. They don't open on a Sunday.
Take three: It's Tuesday and Her Majesty the Queen of England is in town. My deadline is tomorrow, and I simply must eat in Peppe's today. The Italian Millionaire has agreed to accompany me for lunch, we manage to cross the river before the Liffey bridges close, the streets are teeming with guards and there are helicopters overhead.
But inside Peppe's all is calm. Beneath the Italian tourism prints and Campari bunting, men in suits and overalls are reading newspapers and eating fry-ups. Our waitress, who is either Indian or Pakistani, smiles and hands us menus.
I'd spotted Peppe's on a trip to the motor tax office, and thought, now there's a place I could go before or after a flick at The Lighthouse cinema. Not much chance of that since the tragic demise of that fine establishment. I fancied that it might be a hidden gem. You know, authentic -- albeit a bit rough around the edges.
We kicked off with a glass of the house red -- a palatable Montepuliciano. The Italian Millionaire ordered Caprese salad. The components were correct: properly ripe and sweet tomato, mozzarella di Bufala, fresh basil and a slick of olive oil that lacked the greenish hue of the first press. Twasn't bad. Indeed, it was a whole heap better than my Caesar Salad -- a crop of wilting baby gem leaves and salty cheese shavings. Never mind the want of croutons and the absence of anchovy, the insipid dressing was dotted with wholegrain mustard.
We each ordered a pasta main course. Penne Amatriciana is traditionally made with dried pork cheek -- guanciale, the Romans call it. In Ireland, this is usually substituted with pancetta. In Peppe's, you get rashers. And you'll have to dig deep among the onions to find them. There was also an occasional burst of chilli and the penne had a strange powdery texture. After four forkfuls, I'd had my fill.
The Millionaire didn't get that far with his spaghetti carbonara. It looked all right -- no cream, peas, or semi-scrambled eggs. Again, in lieu of pork cheek, there was rasher, but the pasta was coated in an unctuous slick of artificially sweet and inexplicably grainy oil.
If you didn't know better, you'd swear it was margarine. "Sorry," said the Millionaire, "I can't do this." So the waitress brought the offending dish back and asked if he'd like to order something else. But the Millionaire's appetite had turned a corner.
Next thing, a woman appears behind the counter wanting to know what was wrong with the carbonara. "I didn't like it," the Millionaire explained. "It didn't taste right." She started to bark across the floor at him about virgin olive oil and how he didn't know what carbonara was.
"The chef isn't Pakistani," she assured him, as she summoned an obviously Italian chap from the kitchen. I glanced at the blushing, blameless waitress and dropped my head into my hands. The Millionaire launched into his defence in Italian.
The farce resumed when she refused to take my money, because I hadn't eaten all my pasta either. I was then presented with a discounted tab. I suspected my cover had been blown, but I eventually paid the full bill.
After a perfect espresso macchiato (made by the Pakistani waitress), we got the hell out of Peppe Café, glad that I hadn't subjected my pregnant friend to it. And we ambled down to the Quays where we waved at the queen.
Day & Night