Just like mamma makes it
Mamma Mia offers tasty comfort food just like your mother would make – if she’s of the old-school Italian variety, writes CATHERINE CLEARY
IT’S EASY TO stand out from the crowd when there is no crowd. Dublin’s Grattan St is in the deadzone south of Merrion Square. By day the area bristles with suits. By night it’s emptier than a banjaxed Ulster Bank account. Except for this small Italian restaurant with footpath tables under a red canopy and a cosy interior. It’s bustling and if it was on any main street of a busy town it would blend in. Here, it’s the only sign of life immediately south of the National Maternity Hospital at Holles St. I’m guessing that’s why it’s called Mamma Mia.
Waiting for my friend, I enjoy the feeling of sitting on the street (although I am having my head drilled with a car alarm) and admire the old-fashioned “shoe hospital” sign in the building across the road. It seems appropriate to have a shoe hospital near a baby hospital. The arrival of one means the wearing down of the other. Mamma Mia is in one of the many unlovely buildings dropped into these Georgian streets. There are weatherworn plastic gingham tablecloths pegged to the tables and flimsy chairs with fleecy blankets over the backs of them for the dedicated al fresco diner or smoker.
Later in the evening a passing politician (there’s been a steady flow of Fine Gaelers all evening) describes it to my dining companion as “Dublin’s best-kept secret”. We’re told President Michael D Higgins is a regular visitor. And what is the secret? Well it’s encapsulated in the simple bowl of soup I get to start. It’s a butternut squash and potato soup (€6), a large round helping of yellow sunshine with a meaty-tasting stock base (I’m guessing chicken) that’s all good. I’d wager nothing that had to be unwrapped or pierced has gone into this soup, just plain honest ingredients, cooked slowly and carefully to let their flavours deepen and soften into a bowl of comforting broth.
In the spirit of summer we’ve ordered a bottle of the Italian house rosé, which comes at a reasonable €16 and is nicely chilled. Ali’s starter of Sicilian cheeses (€10) is great. The sheeps’ cheeses have a delicious delicate tang, some of them have olives embedded in their waxy depths. And they come with honey and a curious pot of jam which works in a sugar-meets-salty-cheese fashion. Ali’s seafood pasta (€15) is also great: beads of great orangey fish stock sauce, calamari, mussels and just-collapsed cherry tomatoes. My sirloin steak (€20) is the only duff note. Ordered medium rare, it’s dry and smothered with a too-hefty gorgonzola sauce and accompanied by a mediocre salad. I wouldn’t normally have ordered the steak and was sorry I did. Stick to the Italian classics, seems to be the lesson.
By dessert time we’ve deserted the street tables, moved inside and been joined by a third friend who, when I told her it was near the Holler, texted: “Yikes. Can you hear the screaming?” There is no screaming, only ooh-ing over the desserts, which are superb. Ali has an icecream cheesecake, a slab of frozen cheesiness with softly melted bits on a wonderful homemade base. Helen has a tiramisu made, not with lady fingers but with Amaretti biscuits. It’s gorgeously almondy with a caramel texture to the layers. I get a budino, a coffee-flavoured panna cotta, which is fantastic, like a creamy cup of coffee with gelatin added and then tipped with a voluptuous wobble onto a plate and dusted with chocolate powder.