The review: 'I think Paulo would have liked Cirillo's very much'
Cirillo's, 140 Baggot Street Lower, Dublin 2. (01) 676-6848
It's a funny thing, stepping into big shoes like those of Paolo Tullio, whose review slot in this paper I 'minded' for him when he was ill, and took on after his untimely death in the summer of 2015.
I'd known Paolo since I was a child, but everyone who ever watched him on television, when he was a judge on The Restaurant, or listened to his weekly radio slots with Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk, knows that Paolo was smart and funny, and that he was kind, too. Sometimes, when I'm about to turn the knife in a review I find myself thinking, "What would Paolo do?", and I make an effort to deliver whatever criticism I have in a more gentle way.
Paolo was a true polymath, a man who knew an awful lot about a vast number of diverse subjects - everything from astronomy to religion to engineering. And, of course, one subject about which he was supremely knowledgeable was Italian food. As a result, I have tried to avoid reviewing Italian restaurants fearing - with justification - that whatever I have to say wouldn't be up to his standards. What could I write that Paolo wouldn't write a hundred times better, putting the food in its correct geographical and cultural context, and making an authoritative call on its authenticity or otherwise? But I can't continue to ignore one of the world's great cuisines, so I'm going to have to be brave and get on with it.
We had a family birthday to celebrate, and the birthday girl chose where we would go. Being an unreconstructed carb-eater, she favoured Italian. I had spotted Cirillo's on Baggot St and thought that the exterior looked promising, with a smart dark green livery. A dark wood interior spoke of red wine and long-simmered ragu. I read on the website that the restaurant had imported a humdinger of a pizza oven from Naples, which it runs on a mixture of Irish oak and ash, and that they made their pasta, breads and ice creams fresh each day. Cirillo's head pizzaiolo, Luca, uses 00 grade flour and slow-proves his pizza dough for 30 hours. It looked and sounded just the kind of place of which Paolo might approve.
For Ellie, the first bit of good news was that the menu offered calamari as a starter, and the better news for the rest of us was that the portion was sufficiently generous to allow us all a taste. The black garlic aioli was a hit, and the dish impeccably executed, the squid tender and the batter light. A rabbit and lardo terrine with poached plums and house-made sourdough cooked over wood was simple and perfect, and the tomato and mozzarella arancini managed somehow to be light yet substantial; the accompanying gorgonzola dip with basil oil was no hardship, none at all. By way of a fourth starter, we ordered a portion of fettucine with a duck and Parmesan ragu that was just heavenly, the pasta slippery and luscious, the ragu exactly the kind of deep-flavoured creation that I had hoped for.
And then there were pizzas, the char from the oven making them special in a way that pizzas at home can never be, unless you too happen to import a humdinger of an oven direct from Naples. Iterations range from a straightforward Margherita to a Quadrifoglio pizza featuring Young Buck, Hegarty's Cheddar and Gubbeen, and a Daniele with spicy Gubbeen salami, mozzarella, provola cheese and shiitake mushrooms. The signature pizza is the Carbonara, with mozzarella, egg, guanciale and black pepper, and the Nealo features nduja (pronounce it 'en doo ya'), the spreadable spicy Calabrian sausage that everyone loves these days. One is better than the next, and it is good to see a kitchen not so hamstrung by honouring tradition that it isn't afraid to use great Irish ingredients.
Desserts - homemade chocolate and vanilla ice-cream, a lemon and ricotta mouse with marinated cherries and almond crumble, and a deconstructed vanilla and butter milk panna cotta with macerated strawberries - are more than good.
As it turned out, I think Paolo would have liked Cirillo's very much. He'd have liked the affable staff, including the woman who wore her wine smarts lightly and steered us to a fine bottle of Puglian Negroamaro for a reasonable €32. He'd have liked the short menu, and the fact that between six of us we didn't order one dud dish. He'd have liked the relaxed, unpretentious ambience, and the fact that a table of back-packers drinking tap water was given as warm a welcome as we were. Most of all, though, I think he'd have been tickled pink by the complimentary amarettos at the end of the night. Paolo made his own limoncello at home in Annamoe, Co Wicklow (of course he did, he also cooked his own pizzas in an oven that he'd built himself and smoked his own fish) and once, when I enrolled in a series of cookery classes that he gave there, he taught me how to make it, too. So, by way of conclusion to my last review of the year (next week this column will feature my unofficial, without-plaques 2016 Awards), let's raise a glass to Paolo Tullio, limoncello-maker extraordinare, and all-round excellent man. Our bill for six, including two bottles and two glasses of wine, three cocktails, lots of water and one soft drink, came to €266.60 before service.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
At lunch, the Marinara pizza, with San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh oregano, basil and garlic costs just €9, and the casarecce pasta with nduja, shiitake and pecorino in an egg sauce is €12.
ON A BLOW OUT
A couple having calamari, followed by a brace of Parma pizzas featuring marinated tomatoes, mozzarella, rocket and Parma ham, and dessert, with a bottle of Sangiovese, Cavaliere, Michele Satta, 1999 (€70) would end up with a bill of €133 for two before service.
THE HIGH POINT
Simple food executed brilliantly.
THE LOW POINT
It's a bit cramped.