Peek inside restaurateur Eileen Dunne Crescenzi's Dublin 2 period home
Family, friends and feasting are all very important to restaurateur Eileen Dunne Crescenzi, and she combines the three in her joyful period home in Dublin 2.
Most cooks, even good cooks, break out in a lather when it comes to entertaining, and the bigger the crowd, the greater the anxiety.
Eileen Dunne Crescenzi is a rare exception. Her attitude is 'bring it on'. Eileen thinks nothing of a dinner party for 10, and at Christmas she went to town on the entertaining, as she does every year. "Christmas Eve is the big day for Italians, then there's Christmas Day; and Stephen's Day is important for Stefano, as it's his saint's day, so we entertain 25 on each of the three days - family, the kids and friends," Eileen enthuses.
As her name suggests, Eileen is a fabulous mix of Irish and Italian. Born and bred on a street almost in the centre of Dublin city, she still retains the red hair and accent of her youth, but thanks to years spent in Rome, and marriage to a Roman - Stefano Crescenzi - she speaks Italian like a local, and is as familiar with the cuisine as someone who grew up making pasta with her nonna. Eileen and Stefano are owners of the Dunne & Crescenzi chain of restaurants, and so you would expect them to live and breathe food, but it goes deeper than that, as a glance through Festa: A Year of Italian Celebrations, Eileen's sumptuous new cookbook, reveals. Love of food underpins her story, and is woven through the hilarious reminiscences of her early days in Italy. Hand-in-hand with her stories marked by meals both traditional and madcap, goes her attachment to family, both nuclear and extended, here and in Italy.
It was thanks to her own family that Eileen ended up in Italy. "I'm the eldest of seven, and my mother's three younger sisters were like sisters to me, they were that close in age to me. My grandfather remarried and no one liked his new wife, so the sisters took off. Sheila went to Rome, to work in the UN; the other two, Jean and Pauline, followed, and then said to me, 'Come on, you're coming too', so off I went," Eileen recalls with a laugh.
She was only 17 and had just done her Leaving Cert. If she'd stayed at home, she says she would probably have ended up as a secretary, as further education wasn't a priority in a working-class family like hers at the time, but Italy was full of possibilities - like art college. She didn't have a word of Italian, but she had a portfolio, and to her astonishment, it - and she admits, probably her charm, good looks and hair - got her a place in art college there. As well as the professor's awe at her ability to speak English. "I babbled away in English and I don't think he understood a word, but he gave me a place," Eileen recalls.
During that time, she met her first husband, a Chinese sculptor, and her son Ghinlon was born. It wasn't easy for two artists to make a living, but family came to the rescue when her aunts - Jean had joined the UN too - got Eileen a job in the UN, where she worked for 17 years.
It was here she met Stefano after her first marriage had ended. "It was funny, my colleagues were always trying to set me up, and I wasn't interested, to tell you the truth. With Stefano, I remember this girl Jessie saying, 'There's this nice guy Crescenzi', and I said, 'I'm not interested, Jessie'. Then I was having lunch with my friend Leonilda, and she said, 'We'll sit with Crescenzi, he's really nice'. 'Ah', I said, 'Him again'. But after that, we were inseparable."
She and Stefano married and continued working at the UN. They shared a passion for food and travelled all over Italy to get different products. Meanwhile, the arrival of the kids - Sean, now 25, Ashling, 24, and Federica, 22, - involved more and more interaction with grandparents (nonni) and aunts and uncles (zii) which meant Eileen experiencing all the different family celebrations and gradually learning how to make the delicious recipes contained in Festa - recipes like her polenta with sausages and mushrooms, and her Caprese cake.
However, the couple found it hard juggling the care of the children while both worked full-time. Then Stefano had a brainwave. "One day he came home and said, 'Why don't we go to Ireland and open a restaurant?' I thought it sounded really exciting. When I think of it now, we gave up two really good, pensionable jobs, we'd no plan, we didn't know anything about restaurants - we hadn't got a clue," she marvels.
Then they couldn't find a premises. Ghinlon, who was 14 at the time, went to Sutton Park School, and one day after dropping him there, Eileen, driving around, saw a little newsagents for sale. "I said to Stefano, 'Why don't we buy that?' At least we'd have an income. We hadn't a clue what was involved." What it did involve was, among other things, Stefano getting up at 5am to sort the newspapers for delivery. "We were used to lira, not pounds, we didn't even know the money," Eileen notes.
Once they got over those hurdles, they began to see the possibilities. "The supermarkets didn't have the Italian mozzarella, the olive oil, the cheeses; so Stefano brought his cousin's olive oil in, then the wines, the great big blocks of cheese, and people came from all over to buy the produce," Eileen recalls.
Things were looking up, but Stefano still had his dream of a restaurant; walking around town, Eileen saw a lock shop in South Frederick St for sale and suggested they open an antipasto bar. That was 20 years ago, and the couple now have two branches each of Dunne & Crescenzi and L'Officina, a branch of Bar Italia, and a coffee shop, La Corte.
Their first home was over the shop in Sutton, but soon after they were able to buy the terraced house next door to the one in which Eileen had grown up. That house had been built by her great-grandfather in 1860, and is now occupied by her brother, while her sister lives a few doors away. This is a family that likes to see a lot of each other.
These period houses comprise two storeys over basement. They have the usual high ceilings and interconnecting reception rooms, but Eileen, with the help of her son Ghinlon, an architect, turned the house upside down and installed the kitchen and living spaces at the top of the house. "I really recommend it for Irish houses, there's more light at the top," Eileen notes.
Influenced by Ghinlon, who moved to Malaysia with his family last year, Eileen decorated the rooms in creams and white, but says she couldn't live in a minimalist house, and has introduced a lot of colour through the carpets from Stefan's family home in Rome. One thing that's very precious to Stefano is his drinks cabinet, which belonged to his father; he has his digestif every night and thinks of his dad.
There are also many paintings and artefacts around the house, some of which are family heirlooms, such as her grandmother's carved chair, and some from Oxfam and Age Action. "I love charity shops, I love things with a story; I don't know how many tea sets I've bought in charity shops," Eileen notes. And of course she can justify any extravagant purchases with the excuse that she needs them for entertaining.
'Festa: A Year of Italian Celebrations' is published by Gill & Macmillan, €24.99.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin