Sunday 8 December 2019

Italian food, nonna's way

Paolo Tullio

For the past three years, I've spent Thursday afternoons talking to Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk radio about food. A quick back-of-an-envelope calculation tells me that I've talked to Sean about food for about 75 hours.

Up to now it's been all theoretical, in the sense that all we have ever done is talk about food. This week, we finally made a change and had what actors of the old school used to call a 'practical meal' – in other words, we ate a meal together.

I met Sean armed with three options: an Italian restaurant, a modern Irish one and a Japanese one. I thought I'd give him a choice, and of the three options he chose the Italian, which was a little restaurant in Erne Street called Noi Tre, and which translates as 'We Three'.

Erne Street connects Holles Street to Pearse Street, so it's not a street with a heavy footfall.

Noi Tre is in one of the street's original buildings, and there are even a few original interior features. These were not large Georgian houses, so the space for the restaurant is limited. Even with the upstairs, it seats no more than 40.

Downstairs, there are two dining areas – one on either side of the front door. We got a table in the larger of the two areas, –which sat maybe a dozen – and read the lunch menu. The listings were all fairly simple dishes, but they were all genuinely Italian.

Later on, before we left, I saw the kitchen – which is tiny – and that accounts for the limitations on the menu.

There were five starters: bruschetta; strips of chicken with mushroom; mussels; bresaola, and a mozzarella and vegetable salad. The six main courses were: strips of fillet steak with balsamic vinegar; lamb chops; chicken salad; pasta with speck; saltimbocca, and gnocchi with pesto.

All the dishes were priced separately, but you could have a one-course lunch for €9 or a two-course lunch for €15.

Sean decided on the bruschetta to start, followed by gnocchi with pesto.

I ordered the mussels, but was told they were no longer on the menu and had been replaced with calamari. That suited me just fine, and I ordered the saltimbocca for my main course. There's a short wine list, but it is entirely composed of Italian wines.

I passed it to Sean and got him to choose us a wine. He gets to talk about wine once a week on his show, so he's pretty well informed.

He picked out a Bruciato, a red Tuscan wine priced at €40 that turned out to be very good indeed, being made by the famous winery Antinori.

While we waited for our starters, I was able to talk to Sean about his new novel, 'The Angel of the Streetlamps', which I'd started reading and was enjoying immensely. There's a great word that Californians use to describe people like Sean, who have a wide variety of talents. It's 'multi-hyphenate'.

Like many authors, Sean wasn't keen on talking about his own work, but I was able to tell him how much I was enjoying it.

We got our starters and tucked in. Sean had a simple bruschetta in front of him, an easy dish to do right, but just as easy to do wrong. His was done right – all the ingredients were correct and, simple though it was, it made Sean happy.

My calamari were also well done, cooked so that they were still tender and flavoured with a little chilli.

The main courses arrived and I was pleased with what I saw. The gnocchi did indeed look homemade and the saltimbocca also looked right – three pieces of veal topped with prosciutto and sage and cooked in a Marsala sauce.

You can find variants of this on Irish menus, but this is the authentic way.

The gnocchi were soft and yielding, which is how they should be, and the pesto sauce was properly buttery.

The name 'saltimbocca' means 'jump in the mouth', and it gets its name from the combination of prosciutto and sage, which makes a distinctive flavour combination that sparks off your tastebuds.

At this point in our meal, we were the last people in the restaurant and the chef came out of the kitchen. His name is Nicola and I met him some years ago when he was working with Paolo Fresilli in Via Veneto in Enniscorthy.

Nicola has another talent other than cooking – he sings. He has a huge operatic tenor voice and, while we ate the last of our main course, he let rip, singing along to the CD of opera arias that was playing in the background. If you're there when his work in the kitchen is done, you may also get serenaded.

The evening menu is more elaborate with a larger choice of dishes. There are six starters, six pasta dishes and six main courses.

On the evening menu, look out for the scamorza, which is a smoked mozzarella served melted and topped with prosciutto. It's one of my favourite starters.

We lingered over a couple of decent espressos and finished our wine slowly.

What you get in Noi Tre is honest Italian cooking, the kind of cooking my granny would have understood. There was nothing complicated on the menu, but the dishes we ate were all cooked well and the recipes were authentic.

That's rare enough in Dublin, so I was happy to have found a restaurant where I could take an Italian visitor.

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