On the trail of true Italia: Eating out in Il Veliero William St. Waterford
If you've read this column before, you'll know that I have a low opinion of most of the self-proclaimed Italian restaurants in Ireland. There are some I can think of that produce decent enough food, yet they still make me cross. The reason is simply that their dishes are not authentic.
That may seem like a pedantic quibble, but it's not. Italian cuisine has become an international favourite because it's good. And it's good because Italians take the whole process of producing food seriously, from the farm to the plate. When they talk about food you'll hear the word 'genuino' a lot. It means pretty much what 'genuine' does in English: it means that the food product under discussion is exactly what it's supposed to be, that it's free from contaminants, that it's the genuine article.
Italians aren't just fussy about their raw ingredients, they're fussy about their recipes as well. I discovered this years ago when I made a plate of pasta for some friends in Italy. I told them I'd made them a Neapolitan sauce -- a tomato sauce -- and almost as one they said, "That's not a Neapolitan sauce, you've used oregano. That only goes into a pizzaiola sauce."
I learned my lesson back then: if you want to please Italians, then you have to stick faithfully to the recipe. You don't get away with making changes. This means that when you ask for a dish in a real Italian restaurant, it will be made exactly as you think it will be -- you won't get surprises.
This kind of authenticity is as rare as hens' teeth here in Ireland. A couple of years ago I found Via Veneto in Enniscorthy, which is totally faithful to Italian cuisine; no short cuts, no ingredient substitution. There's been nothing since, so when I heard that Waterford now had an Italian restaurant that took its food seriously, I had to go and see for myself.
I set off with my son, Rocco, my daughter, Isabella, and her boyfriend, Dave. We found Il Veliero easily enough, round the corner from the Tower Hotel on the Dunmore Road. It was very busy around the bar area as we walked in, so we went directly to the table.
The room is pleasingly laid out: it's big and the tables are well spaced, and in the middle on a podium stood a grand piano, where a pianist serenaded us with classics from Sammy Cahn, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.
Looking around the room at the fittings, the sheer number of very professional staff, and the menu with its listing of elaborate dishes, it became clear that Il Veliero wants to be something that Ireland doesn't have -- a top-end Italian restaurant. Ever since Roberto Pons closed his Il Ristorante in Dalkey, 15 years ago, there has been no such thing; they're all placed firmly in the lower or mid-range. Il Veliero promised fine dining 'al Italiano.' The wine list too is comprehensive and lists some unusual and very good Italian wines.
The menu is divided up exactly as it should be: starters, first courses of pasta and rice, and second courses of meat and fish. It took a while to choose, but eventually we settled on a selection of cured meats for Isabella, an octopus salad for Rocco, calamari and king prawns for Dave and a polenta purée with prosciutto and porcini mushrooms for me.
Before these arrived we got our amuse bouches of smoked salmon with a pear purée and prosciutto stuffed with mascarpone and ricotta. These flavours were beautifully balanced and augured well for what was to come.
We had a bottle of Verdicchio, a white wine from the Marches priced at €30, which was very good indeed. All of our starters were very well made. Rocco enthused over his octopus salad, but my polenta dish was superb. It was like a thick soup, and never have I tasted polenta quite so good.
Both Rocco and Dave were gluttonous enough to order an in-between course, a lobster ravioli for Rocco and a cannellini bean soup for Dave flavoured with lardo di Colonnata, a Ligurian speciality. These were superb dishes, as good as any I've eaten in Italy.
Things were looking up -- the service was outstanding, the ambience comfortable and relaxing, and the food had been excellent. But things went wrong with the main courses. At the height of the 'poison pork' scare I said, "Sod it, I'll order it anyway", and went for the pork fillet medallions with lemon and capers. Our waiter, to be fair, did ask me if I was sure I wanted pork, but I insisted I did.
It wasn't a clever choice.
It turned out to be very tough, although very nicely flavoured. I can probably blame myself for this, but poor Isabella wasn't enjoying her main course. She'd ordered a risotto with sweet marjoram and scallops, and the scallops had been overcooked to the point that they'd shrunk into hard little bullets. The risotto itself was undercooked, making it crunchy rather than creamy. We mentioned this to our waiter and shortly afterwards a plate of perfectly cooked scallops arrived with apologies.
Across the table from us Rocco and Dave were like cats that had got the cream. Dave had a roulade of sea bass and Rocco had squid cooked in tomato sauce with fried artichokes. Both of these dishes were exceptional and clearly a product of a very talented chef, which made Isabella's and my main courses hard to explain.
We finished up with two very fine pannacottas and one chocolate mousse, which ended the meal on a high note. I finished up with one of the best espressos I've had in Ireland, topped with a thick crema.
Despite the problems with the main courses, I left Il Veliero convinced that they're doing something important: they're bringing Italian cuisine to new levels for Ireland. All of their ingredients come directly from Italy, so it's genuine and authentic. It's a restaurant I'll definitely be returning to.
We weren't charged for the two problem main courses, so our bill came to €145.50.
Il Veliero, 20/22 William Street, Waterford.Tel: 051 844 180
Read Paolo at www.tasteofireland.ie