Monday 23 October 2017

Restaurant review: Back with a bang and some perfect beef

Aingeala Flannery

Thank you Edel Coffey for donning the bib in my absence for the past few weeks. You did a stellar job and brought a touch of understated glamour and class to the trough.

The anticipated hail of "where have you gone?" fan mail failed to land in my in-box, rendering my well-rehearsed lie about touring some of the Continent's most etoiled kitchens more or less redundant.

Truth be told, I wanted to give my blunt and jaded appetite a break. I was, in short, tired of eating.

Hardly a complaint that would bring a tear to a cattle jobber's eye -- I know. But week-in, week-out pressure to consume becomes relentless even for a capacious glutton such as I. Not that I spent my sabbatical in the down dog position on an enema-induced purge -- no I simply lived from fridge to mouth, like most people do.

It didn't occur to me until my self-imposed exile came to an end, that if I didn't go out to eat then my friends didn't either.

This unhappy consequence only came to light when I met Negative Equity for dinner last week. Our friends were concerned, he said, that the gravy train had left the station. In other words, my social capital would depreciate greatly if I was to stop writing this column. You don't know how lucky you are, he told me. Think about the rest of us ...

Negative Equity, with his talent for laying on guilt, should have been a Marxist or a priest. Instead, he does something unexplainable with computers on a three-day week, has two kids and a death sentence of a mortgage, recently commuted to life without parole vis-à-vis the Personal Insolvency Bill. This gives me some chance of turning the conversation around. Is he going for a debt write-off?

Absolutely, he says. It'll mean off-loading luxury possessions like his five year-old Renault Megane. Anything to loosen the noose, he tells me. The only issue is who gets to keep a wedding ring -- him or his wife. Her engagement ring is for the pawnshop. But the €400 limit on items of personal jewellery means they can only keep the one wedding ring between them.

Jesus Christ. How does he sleep or even close his eyes without the face of Michael Fingleton's watch rearing up before him and stripping its diamond-encrusted teeth? It's grand, he says stoically. Nobody died. I fill his glass with a long, purple slosh of Montepulciano and tell him to order whatever he wants -- knowing it'll be a pricey fillet of beef.

Mamma Mia isn't swanky. It draws local residents and staff from the nearby National Maternity Hospital. Given its obscure location, its popularity has spread by word of mouth. The kind of local-love that overlooks things like poor ventilation, clangy acoustics and cramped seating -- all of which Mamma Mia suffers from.

Seated beneath the espresso machine, it took time to adjust to the banging and hissing.

The soundtrack from the kitchen was operatic, shouts of Italian, underscored by clattering pans, the scrape of a paddle across the pizza oven and sudden outbursts of flame that lit up and silenced the room. It was the sound of chaos, but the wild-eyed chef and lone Swedish waitress had an easy synchronicity that put food on the table in style and good time.

The menu is straightforward.

Starters don't stray far beyond the territory of crostini and salumi. Primi comprise a handful of classic pasta dishes: al sugo, arrabiata, alla Sorrentina and frutti di mare. Salads too are traditional: prosciutto with rocket, parmesan and lemon -- and the ubiquitous caprese.

There's a lot of beef and some fish on the secondi menu, while the pizzas I saw coming out of the oven looked delicious -- properly crisp and uncomplicated.

I kicked off with cozze al vino blanco -- a bowl of glossy scrubbed mussels, simmered in white wine, their soft peachy kernels, salty, uniformly fat and juicy. A well-squeezed lemon bobbed in a glistening broth that was packed with torn parsley and heat punctured cherry tomatoes that burst onto my tongue with bright, sunny sweetness.

The last mussel plucked from its shell, I had a bread dipping feast, before returning my bowl wiped clean to the kitchen.

Negative Equity's Bruschetta Pomodoro e Buffala Mozzarella arrived as two thick slabs of rustic bread, lightly toasted and soaked with fruity green olive oil. The tomato topping, I thought, needed some love -- or at least some salt or warmth to coax the flavour to the fore.

The mozzarella di buffalo, mind, had a perfect soft stretchy texture, soaked with creaminess. Top marks to that, and also to the shower of tender basil leaves for the youthful fragrance they brought to the table.

As predicted, Negative Equity ordered a fillet of beef: tagliata with a seasoned garlic and balsamic dressing, rocket and parmesan. Tagliata should be sliced, this fillet wasn't. It made no difference, for it was a mouthwatering three-inch thick chunk of meat that oozed flavour. Expertly timed and turned, it had a perfect crust and a rich pink core that his knife glided through. His only quibble; not enough rosemary on the roast potatoes.

My neat pillows of homemade spinach and ricotta ravioli were more fluffy than floppy -- always a good thing.

Garlic vapours rose from the thick tomato and sausage sauce, which had a good balance of sweetness, acidity and smoke, and was crowned by shavings of top notch parmesan. Quality and simplicity, again, shone through.

Acclimatised to the racket, and charmed by the friendly service, we let the evening drag on with dessert; an orange ice-cream cheesecake that was neither cheese, nor cake, but a puddle of melted gelato on an oatmeal-as-cement biscuit.

It was taken from our bill without question -- next time I'll stick to tiramisu. Yes, I will definitely return to Mamma Mia -- for pizza and lashings of wine. Al fresco. Should the sun ever shine on this debt-ridden damp little country of ours.

TYPICAL DISH: Pasta and pizza


THE DAMAGE: €88.00 for two starters, two mains, one side, one bottle and one glass of wine, San Pellegrino


AT THE TABLE: Midwives

Mamma Mia

2 Grattan Street, Dublin 2

Tel: 01-6769981

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