If you ever wonder how I pick the restaurants I review, it works like this.
First, my email inbox gets filled with press releases telling me when a restaurant has opened; and second, I get emails from kind readers who tell me about what they experienced in restaurants.
Of the two kinds of emails, I'm more inclined to believe the ones from readers, who aren't being paid to plug the restaurants. I've been getting emails from a few Italian readers telling me I should try Terrazzo Italia in the Powerscourt Town Centre. All of the emails assured me it was a truly authentic experience.
You probably know I'm doubtful when I hear the word "authentic" when it comes to Italian restaurants because years of experience have taught me to expect anything but authenticity.
But this week I put my doubts aside and went for lunch there with Gerard Carthy of Taste of Ireland.
The Powerscourt Centre is the townhouse for the Powerscourt Estate and is properly grand. It was built in the late 1700s and is a fine example of the Georgian neo-classical style. The house has a central courtyard which is now roofed over to keep out the elements. Around this courtyard there are galleries over two levels, and on the upper one you'll find Terrazzo Italia. As we took our seats and read the menus, the sound of the grand piano on the ground floor being played wafted up to us, and I'll confess that the music combined with our lofty view made a good impression.
The first thing I do when I read an Italian menu is check a few things – is there cream in the carbonara? Does pizza with pineapple or sweetcorn get a listing? Is penne with chicken and cream on the menu? Any one of these rings alarm bells.
Every restaurateur who runs an Italian restaurant knows change meets resistance. Try to put authentic Italian dishes on a menu and there's a real possibility of losing customers. People who have been given carbonara with cream for 30 years expect it to be there. So the problem for the restaurant becomes: how do you deal with these two opposing forces?
Terrazzo had a simple solution for the carbonara. On the menu it's called spaghetti alla nuova carbonara, which translates as new-style carbonara. Chef Gianfranco will also cook your carbonara either new style or old style without cream, which seems like a pretty good solution to me.
The menu appeared designed to cater for a diverse clientele. There were plenty of Italian dishes on the four-page list, but plenty of other dishes too.
We started with traditional affettati (slices of cured meats) for Gerard and polpette (meatballs) in a Sorrentina sauce, which is a tomato and mozzarella sauce, for me.
For main courses Gerard ordered the carbonara old-style (no cream) and I wavered between the traditional ragu Bolognese with tagliatelle and the lasagna, which was also assembled with all the traditional ingredients, before I finally settled on the latter.
While we waited for the starters to arrive, small lulls in our conversation allowed the talk at tables surrounding us to waft into my ears. Italian was being spoken, and I noticed my old friend Concetto La Malfa of Italia Stampa sitting with Italian composer Riccardo Riccardi at one of the tables. It felt as though we'd discovered Little Italy in the heart of the city.
Our starters arrived – for Gerard a board on which was arrayed spicy salami, Neapolitan salami, coppa, prosciutto, quadrants of cheese, quince jelly, olives and bread – enough to spoil even a trencherman's appetite.
Mine was a little daintier and was served in a white bowl – half-a-dozen well-made meatballs in a very good tomato sauce topped with grated mozzarella. For a simple dish, meatballs can often go wrong, whether they're Italian polpette or Spanish albondigas. The trick is getting the consistency right, so they're neither so finely minced as to be dense, nor so roughly minced that they're crumbly. Like Goldilocks' porridge, the ones I got were just right.
Our pasta dishes arrived next, the classic carbonara for Gerard and the lasagna for me. Not only was my dish just right, but so was the carbonara. If you make the dish properly it comes out creamy, even though no cream is used, which is why I get so niggly when it's made with lashings of cream. And a good lasagna won't be thick and stodgy if it's been made properly by cooking the lasagne sheets before assembling. It should be light and floppy on the plate, like the one I got here.
We couldn't resist desserts. Gerard ordered a tiramisu and I ordered a chocolate fondant. The tiramisu came in a glass, a presentation I'm seeing more and more often, although I'd still prefer the old-fashioned presentation with no glass. The fondant, however, was classically presented and must have been timed to the second, cooked outside, but gloriously runny and unctuous inside.
An Americano for Gerard and a really good espresso for me finished the meal, bringing a bill for €53.60 – good value I thought.
Paolo Tullio's Verdict
On a budget
There's a ‘meal deal' available — any of the panini with chips or a green salad, plus a soft drink or tea or black coffee for €10
On a blowout
The cured meat platter that Gerard had at €8.50 makes a good start for a blowout. The most expensive main course is the sirloin steak at €13.50, and if you followed that with a dessert at €4.50 you'd have spent just €26.50
Finding the place full of Italians, because they'll only congregate where the food is good
The presentation of the tiramisu. I'd much prefer to see it served outside of a glass
8/10 value for money
VIE DE CHATEAUX, the Naas restaurant named Best Restaurant in Kildare in 2011 and 2012, re-opened at the end of last month after undergoing a comprehensive refurbishment.
Located by the canal harbour, it has a large, sunny outdoor |terrace and has been a Mecca in Kildare for great French cuisine for many years.
In other news, KEELINGS, the 100pc Irish family-owned |company, has just harvested its first crop of Irish peppers. Green are the first to ripen, with red, |yellow and orange coming in about three weeks’ time.