Our food critic dines at the go-to destination of pizza lovers in Donegal — and it doesn’t disappoint
“I don’t want to influence you unduly,” whispers the man passing through the restaurant on the way to assume his position at the pub quiz in Patsy Dan’s, “but this is the best pizza in Ireland.”
There’s a lot of good pizza in Ireland these days. Earlier this month, Galway’s Dough Bros came in at No 79 in the annual World’s Best Pizza rankings, a list on which Cirillo’s in Dublin has previously featured — so that’s quite a bold claim. But as I can’t claim to have eaten in every pizza joint in the country, I’ll stick with saying that the version at the Rusty Oven is up there with the nation’s finest.
It’s early evening and we’ve had to wait a while for a table as the place is jammers. Sadly — or maybe it’s just as well, as some of us (ie me) tend to take these things too seriously — this means we’re too late to join the pub quiz. By way of compensation, we get to sit outside on Main Street and watch the world go by. We bump into the people from the next table at lunch at Fisk Seafood Bar in Downings the previous day. We take this to be a good sign.
I’m not sure how the space functions when the temperature drops, but on the warm night of our visit, The Rusty Oven is operating a seamless indoor/outdoor set up, with a couple of cabins that larger groups can take over. We’re at a corner table beside the open kitchen with a fine view of the pizzaiolos at work, expertly stretching and spinning dough above their heads before assembling the toppings and paddling the pizzas into the cavernous wood-burning oven.
We had a smaller version of one of these ovens to play with on holiday in Italy earlier in the summer and didn’t find it as easy as these guys are making it look. Certainly our attempts wouldn’t have made it on to any ‘best of’ list.
Every table is occupied — there are lots of multi-generational groups — and the pace is frenetic, but the staff look to be a happy bunch. They are more than tolerant of the small boy with us burning off excess energy by clambering under the table and taking off around the restaurant at speed, pausing only to show off a few of his nifty dance moves whenever a song he likes comes on.
He calms down when the antipasti board — a generous pile of serrano ham, salami, chilli garlic olives, homemade aioli, brie, Fivemiletown goat’s cheese, organic leaves, a balsamic and olive oil dip and the restaurant’s own ‘Muckish Wild’ sourdough bread — arrives. This is a whopping amount of food for €18, less than the price of a starter in some restaurants these days.
My friends have been here before and know to order the garlic bread too. It comes as strips of sourdough flatbread with an old-school warm garlic and parsley butter and is utterly delicious. Now you know, too.
The sourdough pizzas are excellent. The Rusty Oven makes its dough by hand using only organic stoneground flour from Shipton Mill, water, and — I love this detail — La Baleine sea salt. Then, using a natural sourdough starter, they put it through a 72-hour leavening process.
In high season, they’re making hundreds of pizzas each day, each one as good as the last.
We try three different versions. The Margherita is topped with a properly flavoursome tomato sauce made with slow-roasted San Marzanos, Irish mozzarella, and basil, while the Popeyes get spinach, ’nduja, and mascarpone, and the Funghi a smattering of — yes, you guessed it — mushrooms. The dough has real flavour, the crust is nicely leoparded, and I love the fact that a family restaurant in a holiday town is making the effort to source really good ingredients without feeling the need to shout from the rooftops about its ‘artisan’ credentials.
All I know of the story behind the restaurant is what’s chalked on the boards on the wall. It came into existence in 2013, starting out as a mobile trailer in the yard behind the pub. In those days, ‘Pub Cat’ was their best customer, wine coolers were Noreen Devine’s saucepans, and punters ate in the leaky old cow shed.
Neither do I know how much the prices have increased in the intervening years, but it can’t be by much, because our bill for four adults and two children (we shared five pizzas between us), with a couple of bottles of decent wine (the Colline Verdicchio at €25, and a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Serrano at €29) and soft drinks comes to just €154.
That’s remarkable value for food of this quality. The Rusty Oven is a classy yet unpretentious operation and I wish every town in the country had a place like it.
The Margherita pizza is €11.
Salads, pizzas and desserts for two could set you back €60 before drinks or service.
The Rusty Oven, Main Street, Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal, therustyoven.ie