Da Mimmo, 148 North Strand, Dublin 3. (01) 8561714
After years of driving past Da Mimmo, in both its current and former locations in Dublin 3, we finally got our act together and booked a table for an early dinner on a bank holiday Monday. It's the first gloriously sunny day of the year and it feels absolutely right to be eating Italian food in a noisy room full of happy customers who know that summer has officially begun. Every time a bus passes outside, obliterating the sun, the room is plunged into momentary shadow, and there's an amount of manipulating the blinds to ensure that none of the customers facing out to the street are dazzled by its rays. It's not a problem to which I reckon many Irish restaurant designers have to give much thought.
I remember an earlier incarnation of Da Mimmo, almost a decade ago, on the southside, and the novel thrill of being able to order a proper pizza at a time when the only alternatives were the chains. The quality of the pizza offering in the city has increased exponentially since then, of course, and great pizza is no longer as hard to come by as it was back then, praise be.
Tino Fusciardi opened Da Mimmo on the northside in 2010; the restaurant moved to its current premises last year. And although excellent pizza is central to its offering - with a great big humdinger of a wood-fired oven to prove it - to put Da Mimmo into the pizzeria category would be to do it a disservice.
What it is, is a proper Italian restaurant without pretension, serving generous-hearted food that puts flavour to the fore.
Because Da Mimmo is open 10 hours a day, seven days a week, the kitchen is manned by two head chefs, both called Angelo. Angelo Scarso is from Sicily, while Angelo Paneduce is from Capua near Naples. Each brings his own different ideas and techniques, heritage and experience to the restaurant. The combination makes for a menu that is way more interesting than the modest premises and casual ambience would lead one to expect. The menu is also very long, stretching to half a dozen pages, although the bulk of it is made up of pizza and pasta variations.
We start with calamari fritti that are spiced with paprika and served with a punchy caper mayonnaise - the batter is good, the squid tender, the portion enormous. Anywhere else this would be a main course, and it's priced at just €10. The bread in the crostone di caponata may be indifferent, but the sweet/sour caponata itself pretty delicious: the combination of aubergine, peppers, onions, olives, celery and mint, with pine nuts for texture, dressed with good balsamic vinegar, and topped with sharp Caciocavallo cheese feels classic for a reason. The bruschetta al pomodoro, on the other hand, fails because the tomatoes taste of nothing, which is a pity, because there are flavoursome tomatoes around at the moment, although pricey. I'd prefer a smaller portion, made with better tomatoes.
In addition to the long menu, there's a separate list of specials. The orecchiette with sausage, friarielli (wild broccoli), smoked buffalo mozzarella and white wine sauce turns out to be the best pasta dish that I've had since I was last in Italy, or maybe even ever. Again, the portion is enormous but somehow we manage to finish it - the combination of ingredients is just perfect, and the soupy broth that's left after all the pasta is finished cries out not to be wasted.
We order two pizzas - a simple bufala topped with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil, to which we add some Italian sausage, and a funghi with smoked scamorza, wild mushrooms, meaty porcini, garlic, truffle oil and parsley. Anthony Bourdain went off on an anti-truffle oil rant recently on The Tonight Show, and it can be horrible, as he says, but both these pizzas are a success, with fine, crisp dough and a great-tasting char from the wood-burning oven, which I'll wager must be among the biggest in the country.
Not that we really need them, after all that, but we try two desserts as well. The tiramisu, served in a coupe with a strawberry on top, is pleasant without being exceptional (I'd have preferred more marsala and general sogginess), and the cannoli siciliani - two tubes of pastry filled with sweet buffalo ricotta cheese, pistachio and little nibs of chocolate - hit a sweet spot that we didn't even realise needed hitting. Our bill for three, including a bottle of Il Ruspo Sangiovese (€29) and a couple of soft drinks, comes to €111.45 before service. That's great value as it is, but you could eat well here for far less, as the portions are more than generous.
"It's a family business," Tino Fusciardi tells me, when I ring him a few days later. "My brother sends local cheese and salami and cured meats from the butcher in Casalattico, our village in Italy, and my wife does the books. We work long hours and we have really good staff [this is true - the floor staff are excellent] and we try to look after them as well as we can. We all work together, to keep making the food better, and make it good for our customers."
On the evidence of our visit, Fusciardi and his team are making a more than decent fist of things. It's a busy spot, so plan ahead and make a booking.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Penne all'arrabbiata - pasta with a tomato sauce with garlic and fresh chilli - is €10.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Straccetti alla romana - rib-eye steak with rocket, balsamic and Parmesan, - followed by risotto with scampi and tiramisu would cost €70 for two before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
The orecchiette with sausage, friarielli (wild broccoli), smoked buffalo mozzarella and white wine is a triumph of a dish.
THE LOW POINT
We were not offered the opportunity to sample the wine.