A little Italy: Tiny restaurant that’s too good to be a secret

With no ceremony and few frills, this Dublin basement feels like home

Sat, May 27, 2017, 06:00

   

Terra Madre

  • Italian

The only exertion has been the pedal up Christchurch hill on the way here. So I’m not sure I’ve earned a lunch fit for a labourer coming in from the fields. But let’s go with it.

Terra Madre means mother earth. And it’s a restaurant that feels more like the kitchen of an Italian family at a break in the farm day. Limbs are tired, bellies empty and someone has clattered a spoon on a jug to call us in for lunch. 

The tiny basement on Dublin’s Bachelor’s Walk is barely bigger than a domestic kitchen. They can seat about 18 people at a squeeze.

Down narrow steps you cross the threshold into what feels like distinctly Italian soil. There’s a red dresser in the corner with jars of pickled vegetables. Walls are painted grey and green like a misty dawn in an olive grove.

Tables and chairs are mismatched, some of the chairs have ancient cushions on them and the floor has wine stamps printed on it as if it’s been made from empty cases. 

Behind us sits passata in wine bottles, like smoothies made from blended tomatoes. One red, one mango yellow because it’s made from yellow tomatoes. “Can we buy one?” my friend asks at the end of lunch. Her Sicilian husband would love it. No. They’re not for sale. 

This is a no-nonsense kind of place. There is no ceremony and few frills. I came here in its early days when it was more a soup and sandwich offering. Now it’s very much a grown-up restaurant, except without fizzy water.

If you don’t drink wine you’re on tap water, un-iced and poured from a glass jug like you would at home. That’s the word that runs through Terra Madre like an underground stream. Home being the place where hearty stews are simmered in a quiet kitchen to the sound of a slow clock until their juices have deepened down into the flavours of time. 

Tuscan

Menus are printed on A4 paper, plates are as mismatched as the tables. The food seems to have shifted from Sicilian to Tuscan in tone, as the other friend notices, a change from his last visit here. When I ask later if the place has changed hands, they say no – the Sicilian partner is just on holiday at the moment. 

The temporary Tuscan land grab means we get traditional ingredients like baccala or salted cod, preserved in salt for its trip inland in the days before blast freezers and served today for flavour. 

The dishes do that trick of all great Italian meals by looking ordinary and tasting extraordinary. So a plate of cheese and bread, triangles of waxy yet crumbly pecorino come with rounds of bread drizzled with olive oil, a few flakes of salt and a drop or two of vinegar. But everything from the bread to the grassy fresh oil is better than good.

Bruschetta come as crunchy flat toasts, none of your builders’ expanding foam baguette rubbish. They’re all about the toppings: so there are pickled caper sprouts, stringy greens that taste like capers without the vinegary pop. “Eat the lardo first” is our only instruction. As soon as we do I understand why. It’s warm, glistening and almost translucent laid on toast like a layer of icing made from essence of pig.

There’s cheese on toast, more pecorino, melted this time. A second starter of “pancetta barbecue carpaccio” is ordered to see just what the heck that is. It’s circles of pale pink pork you peel off the plate with fingertips, a bit luncheon meaty, but in a good way. It’s topped with smidgeons of onion jam and small, sweet, dark-brown olives.

Parcels

Ravioli made, we’re told on the menu, by the Tuscan plin or pinch method come in a simple white bowl. These are small parcels (no one wants to eat a raviolo in two bites) filled with fondue cheese and flavoured with a well-judged amount of truffle. It looks rib sticking but is, Jeanne says, a bowl of lightness, which she didn’t think was possible. 

I get the salt cod stew, served in a puddle on the plate, with clumps of chard and finely diced vegetables in a beaded glistening tomato base. More toasts come on the side for mopping. Gerry’s octopus and black chickpea stew has a similar tomato base and gnarly bits of octopus meat that are just the right side of robust. Those tasty black chickpeas are like squid ink in pulse form. 

The best of the three desserts is a coffee mousse with a proper caffeine kick. It’s a fluffier affogato (the classic dessert of a ball of ice cream drowned in an espresso). There’s a slice of chocolate tart which has been made with a heavy dollop of booze I’m guessing is Amaretto and a perfect creamy panna cotta with a blousy soaked cherry on top. 

By the time we finish this small place has filled up and the slightly brusque service has mellowed, as if we’ve somehow passed an eating test and been accepted into the family. Three great coffees send us back out into the fields, I mean streets, ready for more. Diluted versions of Italian peasant cooking are everywhere. Terra Madre is the real deal, far too good to be just an Italian secret. 

Terra Madre

13 Bachelors Walk, Dublin 1 (01) 873 5300

Lunch for three with two glasses of wine and dessert came to €91.50.

Verdict: 8/10. Less like a restaurant, more like a food hug from an Italian kitchen.

Food provenance: None.

Facilities: Small, unisex and the loo roll is printed with roses.

Music: Mellow. A reggae version of The Final Countdown was memorable.

Vegetarian options: Limited.

Wheelchair access: No.