Hold the red sauce
A promising new Italian restaurant has opened in Temple Bar, but there’s still work to be done
Do Italians eat like Italians any more? The food writer Katie Parla told me once that processed food was marching across the Italian food world as surely as it has in her home country of America. She has lived in Rome for more than a decade and describes the city’s restaurant scene as dominated by “tired old institutions” many of which “have given up on making really spectacular meals with great ingredients.”
This was always that gap Italian restaurants slipped down when they migrated north to our island. Those great ingredients weren’t on the plates. The Irish Italian restaurant scene was dominated by cheap and cheerful pasta and pizza parlours. The car tyre black rings of olives sprinkled on your pizza? They aren’t black olives but cheaper green olives oxidised and treated with iron salt to dye them black. Yum.
A more authentic Italian meal is the schtick of Fiorentina, a new restaurant in Dublin’s Temple Bar. It’s also a football team and a pizza. There are no pizzas on the menu here. It’s in the curved corner building on Parliament Street and Dame Street, facing Dublin’s City Hall. The building was once Da Pino and, more recently, the tapas restaurant Salamanca.
It’s been gussied up in the footballers’ wives school of chic, with dark tables, busy dark chairs and a moody grey on the walls. The good room feel is finished with creamy lampshades. An enormously cheerful Italian waiter greets us with a buonasera. It would be all very cosy if they didn’t leave the door open for the entire meal. Maybe it’s in the hope that they will fill some of the empty tables around us on a sunny Sunday evening.
The pre-theatre menu sounds terrific at two courses for €19.50 and three for €23. The cocktail of the day also appeals, a mint and cucumber bellini, “some Italian bubbles,” the waiter says enthusiastically. It arrives in a small Champagne flute looking more like a health food concoction than a cocktail – a sludgey green drink with dried mint floating on the top. It tastes fine.
So to the good dishes. Carol’s pork belly is a fork-tappingly crispy on top chunk of pig, descending through layers of sweet meat and fat and resting in a jammy sage gravy with beautifully cooked asparagus to lift the wintery notes. Later there’s an Amalfi lemon tart with a tongue-tingling raspberry sorbet which is good enough to lick lean if you didn’t risk arm strain from lifting the heavy slate it’s served on.
Other dishes fall flatter. My beef carpaccio is €10.50 a plate, and the meat is rasher-thick rather than gossamer silk, more Lady Gaga meat dress than Tinkerbell’s wing. Two or three slivers of sliced, marinated artichoke are served on it and the waiter brings some more as he thinks it looks a bit stingy. Less beef, pounded thinner and a more generous hand on the artichoke would have made this a better dish.
Carol’s crab starter is served on a sweet doughy bread rather than sourdough toast that would have given it the crunchy and tangy ballast it needs. The special main course of black sole with anchovy butter looks and smells delicious but no amount of glistening salty butter will disguise the fact that the fish has been cooked past the point of flakiness to the point of rubber.
I admire the effort here. It would be easy to order a new batch of gingham table cloths and waxy chianti bottles or open a Mcbistro in this location. They’re aiming for something a bit better, the kind of restaurant we stumble across abroad and come home asking why we can’t do something like this in Dublin. But it’s a big leap from cheap and cheerful to cheap and flavourful. And once you stray off the early bird into the a la carte it gets pricey. Dinner for two with one cocktail, two glasses of wine and a sparkling water came to €98.30.