A rare taste of Italy: Ristorante Morsiani
Fitzwilliam Square, Wicklow Town. Telephone: 0404 64876
I'm at my most critical when I'm eating in Italian restaurants in Ireland. That's because I know how good Italian food is when it's done right.
When it's bastardised, when ingredients are substituted for poorer quality ones, when the recipes aren't respected, then I get cranky and irritable. And in the majority of cases that's exactly how I leave these restaurants, because as sure as eggs is eggs they will have committed a gastronomic mortal sin. And those are sins that are very hard to absolve.
Occasionally, over the years, I've come across Italian restaurants that are authentic. These are restaurants where the ingredients are correct and where recipes are genuine and unadulterated. Those of you with long memories might remember Roberto Pons' Il Ristorante in Dalkey, where the highest-quality Italian cuisine was available. You can find him now in La Dolce Vita in Wexford town.
Also in Co Wexford is La Dolce Vita in Enniscorthy, where the food is good, authentic and genuine. About a dozen years ago, I found great Italian food in the unlikely venue of the now defunct Il Cacciatore in Ashford, Co Wicklow. The chef was from Bologna, the centre of Italy's gastronomy, and his name was Roberto Morsiani.
Shortly afterwards, he opened up in Blackrock under the name Da Roberto, and soon word got out that you could eat proper Italian food there. After that, he opened briefly in Dun Laoghaire, doing simple dishes for the lunch-time trade, before trying his hand at retirement. I'm happy to tell you that he's back at work, this time working with his son, in a new restaurant in Wicklow town called Ristorante Morsiani and this week I went there with my son, Rocco, to try the food.
It's easy to find: as you come into Wicklow's Main Street, go left at the triangle and you'll see the restaurant on your right before the bridge -- a red door makes it easily visible. The dining room is upstairs in what looks a little like a luxury railway dining-carriage of bygone days. It's more long than wide and the vaulted ceiling enhances the carriage look. It seats fewer than 50, which has an effect on the menu -- with fewer diners to cope with than in previous restaurants, Roberto and his son Emanuele have been able to put more complex dishes on the menu.
The starters range from €8 to €9.50 and there's plenty to choose from. Lamb skewers flambéed with brandy; a bresaola salad with rocket and brie; a 'pasticcio' (layers of pork, Parma ham, mortadella, chicken, Parmesan, pistacchio nuts and sautéed mushrooms); a Parmesan soufflé served on a bed of braised spinach; an antipasto plate; a Parmigiana of aubergine and prawns tossed in brandy and served with a creamy tomato sauce.
Inviting as these dishes looked, both Rocco and I were drawn to the pasta dishes, since they make their own pasta by hand here, using organic eggs. There are 14 pasta dishes to choose from and they can be had as a main-course portion or Italian style as a starter portion. Purists will be happy to see the carbonara has no cream. We eventually chose 'Granny's rotolo' and 'barchette', or little boats. For our main courses, we picked the noisettes of lamb and a dish of prawns and scallops.
There's a good wine list, almost entirely composed of Italian wines. The majority are priced between €20 and €30 and there are four reds and four whites available by the glass or by the half-litre carafe. With only Rocco drinking we picked a half-litre of the Tuscan Morellino di Scansano, a nicely balanced wine with a cépage of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot. Two one-litre bottles of mineral water were charged at the very reasonable price of €2.90 each.
The starters were very much at the top end of Italian cuisine. It's worth repeating that Bologna is Italy's culinary capital -- it's in the region of the Emilia-Romagna, the region that gave us Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. Traditionally, this is an area rich in dairy, so butter and cream figure largely in the local recipes. This richness of Emilian cooking earned Bologna the epithet in Italy of 'the fat'.
The first dish was the rotolo, which you can think of as a swiss roll made of pasta. This rotolo is Roberto's grandmother's recipe, and rolled into the thin sheets of pasta are ricotta, sausage meat, mozzarella, spinach and herbs. It's then sliced, and the slice is served with a creamy tomato sauce finished with brandy. It was, without a doubt, probably the best pasta dish I've ever eaten. Frankly, it would be worth the drive to Wicklow for this dish alone.
The barchette, or little boats, were open pasta shells, shaped like a dinghy, filled with a mixture of mozzarella with cream. They sat in a sea of basil cream and not only looked very pretty, but were also good to eat.
Almost all of the main courses are priced at less than €20, but we happened to pick two dishes that cost more than €20: the dish of scallops and prawns and the noisettes of lamb. The seafood dish was generous and well filled with scallops and prawns, which had been pan-fried, flambéed with brandy and finished with white wine, garlic and parsley. The lamb noisettes (medallions of loin) were also pan-fried in olive oil and flavoured with pancetta, garlic and parsley. They were served with a mix of Parmesan, egg and cubed potatoes flavoured with garlic and rosemary.
This was in every way a meal that you could have had served to you in Italy, a rare-enough event in Ireland. There's a level of skill in Morsiani's cooking that would put him ahead of most chefs working in Italy, so finding a chef of this calibre in Ireland is a joy.
If you worry about butter and cream, you can choose things on the menu that go lightly on those ingredients. But if you want to enjoy Bolognese cooking as it should be, just go for it. A little of what you fancy really does do you good.
The bill for the night came to €101.40.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FAIR
0-15 = POOR
The lunch menu allows you to try dishes without spending a lot. You can have a main-course size pasta dish for less than ¤10, and I’d go for the tagliatelle al ragù, the original of what is known elsewhere as spaghetti Bolognese. With the homemade tagliatelle and a genuine Bolognese ragù, this is the dish to try.
The menu won’t let you spend more than €22.50 on any dish, which is what the fillet of beef dish costs. However, you can indulge yourself on the wine list. For a real Tuscan treat, you can have the Sassicaia, priced at €124.50.