When in Rome: Paolo Tullio's restaurant review
At one point he acme to me and said: "Mr Tullio, given your surname, you might like to know that about 150 metres from here is a restaurant called 'Tullio'. People say it's good."
Over the past couple of years Marian has nurtured an increasing fondness for Rome's Via Veneto. It's one of the city's hyper-smart streets, filled with five-star hotels and expensive restaurants. Film buffs will remember that it got its first taste of international fame with Federico Fellini's film 'La Dolce Vita', much of which took place on Via Veneto, specifically in the Café de Paris.
The street winds its way uphill from Piazza Barberini and near the top you can find the Café de Paris and opposite it, the equally smart and equally expensive Café Donay. This year I booked us into the rather elegant Aleph Boscolo Hotel, which is on the Via San Basilio, a little street that runs parallel to Via Veneto.
Like many good hotels it has a superb concierge, who is the public face of the hotel. He was like the conductor of an orchestra, making the guests at ease and comfortable, while at the same time keeping the workings running smoothly.
At one point he came to me and said: "Mr Tullio, given your surname, you might like to know that about 150 metres from here is a restaurant called 'Tullio'. People say it's good." Now, how was I going to pass over a chance to review Ristorante Tullio? Clearly, the gods had dropped this one into my lap.
And so it was, about eight o'clock, we walked, or rather I walked and Marian teetered on impossibly high heels over the uneven cobblestones that paved Via San Nicola, to Ristorante Tullio.
From outside it looks unprepossessing, nothing remarkable, like a trattoria in a quiet side street. Back in the day though, this place had its Hollywood moments, with luminaries such as Henry Fonda and Clark Gable coming here to dine. It wasn't super smart, just renowned for good food.
This sense of simplicity remains, especially in the menu. It doesn't list complicated, cheffy dishes, just some classics and dishes in season. Perhaps what remains of the Hollywood days is that apart from the Italian spoken by the waiters, English and French seemed to be the dominant languages at the tables the night we ate.
I always advise visitors to a country to eat where the locals eat, and finding myself surrounded by many nationalities, except Italians, I began to wonder how clever my choice of restaurant had been. Yet one thing that was immediately apparent was that the waiters here knew their business well. I watched as they took fish off the bone at the tables, prepared côte de boeuf and dispensed silver service as smoothly and deftly as I've seen it done. Whatever the food might bring, the service was going to be slick.
We started with two really classic dishes, fettucine with porcini (ceps) for Marian and pasta with beans for me. The fettucine dish was nicely done, the pasta cooked as it should be and the sauce made with chopped ceps and butter, giving it a rich and comforting taste. The dish I had, pasta with beans, is the dish that kept southern Italy fed for centuries, a dish of the poor, but a perfect mix of flavour and nutriments.
You can use most cut pastas to make it, and the sauce is made with cannellini beans. For extra flavour people used to use a ham bone, which was boiled up with the beans, often so many times that it ceased to render any discernible taste at all. Sometimes the skin of the prosciutto was boiled up with the beans. It gradually softens and eventually brings a great taste to the beans. What came to me was a classic 'pasta fagioli' - filling, nourishing, and redolent of times past.
As ever, Marian ordered lamb for her main course, which I maintain is a risky choice in Italy. They kill lamb very small in Italy and lamb dishes tend to be composed mostly of bone, with just a few bits of meat and fat. That's pretty much what she got here, four chops of very young lamb on which you'd have been hard-pressed to find a piece of lean meat.
I did rather better, because I ordered the classic Roman dish osso buco, a slice of veal shank cooked long and slow with vegetables. The dish gets its name from the marrow bone in the middle, which I tend to leave till last as my final treat.
We finished up with a coffee and a tea, which ended a decent meal. Not an exceptional one, but competent and well served. Without any wine, we reached a total of exactly €100 for this meal, not a huge amount by Irish standards, but very expensive by Italian standards. Anywhere else, other than right alongside Via Veneto, this meal would have cost no more than €60, and that may well explain the lack of Italians dining in the restaurant.
Still, if you want to experience a genuine Italian trattoria of the old school, you could do worse than to eat in my namesake restaurant. Just stay away from the lamb.
VALUE FOR MONEY: 6/10
ON A BUDGET
You may find a 'tourist menu' at lunchtime, but in the evening you probably won't. So for budget eating stick to the 'primi', which are pasta and rice dishes, and avoid fish dishes, which are by far the most expensive.
ON A BLOWOUT
If you like fish,
then that's the route to a blowout. Italians consider fish a real treat and make you pay for it accordingly. For example, a plate of scampi in Ristorante Tullio is €40.
THE HIGH POINT
For me, the highlight of the meal was the pasta with beans, one of those tastes that hark right back to childhood.
THE LOW POINT
The lamb. But once you've got used to Irish lamb, anything else seems second rate.
WHISPERS FROM THE GASTRONOMICON
Dunnes Stores are running their French wine sale all through the month of September.
There are a lot of wines in the sale for under a tenner, and some - for example some of the Laurent Miquel range - are on sale at half price. Good Bordeaux are on sale with about a 10pc discount.