Eating out: Paolo Tullio at Wallace's Asti in Dublin
"Bringing a taste of rural Italy to Dublin..."
'The Dean of the Docklands here," said the voice on the telephone. "Hello Harry," I said, for it was H Crosbie, and I'd know that voice anywhere. "You know how I know the northside like the back of my hand?" he continued. "Well I've found a great place near Croker. You're gonna love it. Let's go for dinner next week."
It seemed that Harry and John Banville had discovered this little restaurant as a lunch venue, where they enjoyed lunch for the princely sum of €10 each. The restaurant is called Wallace's Asti, and it's on Russell Street at the bottom of a new apartment block. It seems to be much wider than it is deep, so most of the tables have a window view and right behind them is the open kitchen where you can watch the chefs at work.
In Italy, places where you go to eat are not all restaurants. At the top end there are ristoranti, where you can expect good service, linen napery and fancy food. Then there's the trattorie, which aren't so fancy – no linen, plainer surroundings and cheaper food. Then there's the pizzerie, which is where you go when you don't want to spend much money. Wallace's Asti is a pizzeria, and judging by the menu and the pricing, it's the closest thing to an Italian pizzeria that I've found in Ireland.
In one respect it's a cut above the average Italian pizzeria, because it has a really good wine list covering most of Italy's regions. But more importantly, from an Irish perspective, the majority of the listed wines are under €30. With the new duties and taxes that's becoming harder for Irish restaurants to do. Perhaps the only reason it can be done here is because they import their own wines directly.
We were six: Harry and Rita, his son Simon with his partner Liz, Marian and me. That meant that between us we were able to sample lots of the menu. My eye was caught at once by a starter of cannellini beans with pancetta. That's one of southern Italy's all-time classic peasant dishes, one that's delicious, economical and nutritionally well balanced. Other starters that came to the table were steamed marinated prawns, classic tomato bruschetta and mussels in a tomato sauce. Nothing complex there, but all done exactly as it should have been.
Of all the starters I'd give pole position to the beans. They were magnificent, cooked exactly right with just enough pancetta to give the dish a lift.
So enthused was I with this peasant dish that I ordered another peasant classic for my main course, the polenta. The menu described it as being served with slow-cooked pork ribs and sausage. In my part of Italy the traditional way of serving polenta was to spread it about an inch thick on a large wooden board, cover it with tomato sauce and place sausages in the middle. The board was placed on the table and each diner would start eating the polenta from directly in front of them. Whoever got to the middle first got to eat the sausages.
What I got was like a miniature version of this, except with no one else racing me, I was able to start with the ribs and sausages, both of which were cooked in a tomato sauce. Other dishes at the table were a carbonara, lamb cutlets scottadito, sea bream in a herb crust and chicken fillet with prosciutto and sage, as though it were veal saltimbocca.
I know I've enthused over the cannellini bean dish, but now I'm going to enthuse over the carbonara. It came to the table exactly as it would have done in Rome, by which I mean it was made with guanciale, egg yolks, grated Parmesan and black pepper. It was not swimming in cream as it so often is. Let me put it simply – this is a Roman dish and in Rome they don't use cream. Beat the egg yolks well with grated Parmesan and you'll get a creamy sauce.
Another dish that went down well was the lamb chops 'scottadito', which translates as 'finger burning', the idea being that you eat them hot with your fingers. They came with a tasty sweet potato purée as well as the thin broccoli spears, what are known as broccoletti in Italian. These are invariably boiled just until tender, then tossed in a frying pan with olive oil and garlic, 'pasato in padella'.
It therefore came as no surprise to discover that our chef was Roman and, I was told, a stickler for keeping recipes exactly as per canon. I know another chef like this, Paolo Fresilli of Ennicorthy's Via Veneto, who guards classic recipes fiercely.
It's this strong defence of classic recipes that makes Italian cuisine such a worldwide favourite. It also means that you know exactly what you're going to get if you order a classic dish from the menu.
We had two good wines with this meal: a really good Dolcetto from the Piedmont at €31 and a really exceptional Brunello di Montalcino, extraordinarily good value at €39. Our bill was made up of that, five bottles of mineral water at €24 and six evening specials at €17.95, which was a starter and a main course plus a glass of wine. That made a total of €213.70 for the six of us.
VALUE FOR MONEY 9/10