Our food critic has an overall dispiriting experience at this Dublin Italian
It’s been many years since I last ate at Bar Italia, located in the Italian Quarter originally developed by Mick Wallace. I don’t remember much about that meal, but I’ve noticed the restaurant — and particularly its pasta dishes — cropping up in social media posts recently. I suppose I was influenced to revisit.
Inside, a large coat rack dominates the entrance. My friend Mei has made the booking, but I’m the first here and have plenty of time to look over the menu and observe the other diners — mostly tourists, I’d hazard — before she arrives. Nobody asks me whether I’d like a drink while I’m waiting, or offers to take my coat, or engages with me at all.
The menu offers starters, pastas, pinseria romana (pizzas), salads and main courses. It’s a cold night, and neither the starters nor the dull-sounding salads (with chicken, grilled vegetables or smoked salmon — yawn) appeal, while the main courses are limited to a choice of steak (a review cop-out), sea bass and sea bream. I ask whether the fish are wild or farmed and, after an off-the-cuff bluff that they’re wild, our waiter goes to check. Turns out both are farmed. Neither of us wants pizza.
As the pasta dishes are what have lured me back to Bar Italia, I’m only too happy to go along with Mei’s suggestion we go carb-on-carb. So we order three pasta dishes and one risotto. Yes, it’s eccentric.
First up is the fettuccine al tartufo nero pregiato — fresh egg fettuccine with Parmigiano Reggiano cream and shaved Umbrian truffle, melanosporum. If you’ve ever been in the presence of really good truffles, you’ll know the heady aroma they impart. Sometimes you can be in a restaurant and smell it on the way to a table on the other side of the room and you’ll kick yourself for not splashing out. At Bar Italia, the truffle doesn’t have that sexy pungency, even though there’s a reasonably generous amount in the dish. It tastes of something, but it’s lacklustre, underpowered. The sauce is pleasant but unremarkable.
Our second pasta is malloreddus alla norma. Malloreddus translates (roughly) as little Sicilian gnocchi; the tiny shapes are made in-house (impressive) from semolina flour and water, without egg. The pasta itself is good, but the sauce — again traditionally Sicilian, with aubergine the principal ingredient — is overly sweet and strangely bland, and the streaks of bright-green basil oil by way of decoration taste of nothing.
By far the best of the three pasta dishes is the strozzapreti con sugo al brasato di bue. I love that strozzapreti means ‘priest strangler’. Back in the day, so the story goes, the church took away eggs from the people of Emilia-Romagna, leaving them to make pasta with only flour and water. The people hoped the clerics would choke on the egg-less pasta. Here, the sauce of beef cheek braised in Montepulciano with tomato is rich, flavoursome, and delicious.
Our final dish is a very strange risotto of delicata squash with Gorgonzola fonduta, culatello lardons, and Gouda al tartufo. The risotto comes in a large, shallow, circular dish — think quiche dish without the crimped edges — and its temperature is barely above tepid. Mei thinks it looks like a giant crème brûlée. The surface is hatched with lines of a dark liquid. Is it balsamic? Squid-ink reduction? No, marjoram oil, apparently, though so devoid of flavour it hardly matters. We send it back — I see an eye roll from the staff member to whom I direct the request as he makes his way to the kitchen — and it returns piping hot a few minutes later. The rice itself is nicely al dente but, aside from a mild sweetness from the squash and the tasty nuggets of culatello, there is little to recommend this dish.
We finish with a panna cotta served in a glass rather than on a plate — it’s impossible to ascertain whether it passes the wobble test — accompanied by some sad ‘wild’ berries.
With three decent negronis and two glasses of wine, our bill for this dispiriting experience comes to €177.65, including a 10pc tip which I hope went to the sole woman on the floor, the only person who smiled at us all night. I guess that’ll teach me to be wary of being influenced.
A margherita pinseria romana — pizza — is €15.
Starters, steak with truffle, and dessert for two could cost close to €150 before drinks or service.
Bar Italia, 26 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1. baritalia.ie