So the first shall be last
Il Primo has defined fresh, simple Italian dining for years; perhaps now is the time to redefine itself, writes CATHERINE CLEARY
HERE’S A CONFESSION that may shock the food police. I have never been to the English Market in Cork. I remember a woman at a dinner table years ago who looked at me incredulously when I told her this. “How can you write about food?” she asked, as if I were a priest telling her I’d never been to mass. The simple answer is I don’t live in Cork. If I did, I imagine I would be hardly ever out of the place.
Il Primo is a little bit like that. It’s such a stalwart of the Dublin restaurant scene, 21 years on the go, with its chirpy blackboard telling jokes on the street. It’s got personality and has staked its claim as “the first”, as it’s name translates, the Italian mid-market restaurant that defined the genre. And, until a recent rainy Tuesday night, I had never crossed the threshold.
Italian food is one of the great things about being alive. Jamie Oliver wishes he was Italian. I wish we ate like Italians, fanatically and democratically, with none of the snobbery that divides the wicker-basket farmers’ markets and the chilly supermarket freezer aisles. The parish pride that we put into local GAA teams is found in devotion to food producers in Italian villages, olive oil producers and artichoke growers as local heroes.
An Italy-loving German, Dieter Bergmann, opened Il Primo at the start of the 1990s and left to open Riva in Dublin’s Docklands, which has since closed. Restaurateur John Farrell, who runs Dillingers, the Butcher Grill and 777, learned about the casual dining experience here, and built his empire on the proceeds of the sale of his stake in the place.
I’ve passed by Il Primo so often I almost feel like I have been there. I’m bound to enjoy it. Loads of people love it. It has to be good. These are my assumptions as I wander in for a booking at 7pm. But no. On the night I visit the food is surprisingly terrible. Not all of it is terrible, there’s one excellent dessert and a couple of starters that are okay. But my main course is so bad I almost break the habit of a lifetime and send it back to the kitchen.
Let’s start with what they get right. The personality of the place is good. It’s on the charming Montague Street, which links Camden Street with Harcourt Street. Downstairs some high tables and stools give it a wine-bar feeling. We go upstairs and have a little flurry of texts and confusion as my friend arrives, asks for me although I’ve booked the table in her name, and then wanders up to join me. The service is some of the best I’ve had in Dublin, friendly and chatty to just the right degree, which is a difficult balance to achieve.
Tables fill up quickly and it gets loud. There’s a pre-theatre deal that runs all evening in the early part of the week so we can do three courses for €26, which is good. And it all starts fine. Miriam’s chargrilled asparagus is a simple, well-cooked dish, smokey lines of charred flesh on the spears, fresh leaves and good Pecorino shaved over it. I go for the monkfish cheeks on the a la carte and am a bit dismayed to get a plate of Donegal Catch-esque breaded and deep-fried pieces on an okay salad with finely chopped tomatoes and a lemon mayo. It feels a bit sad to have the meaty monkfish pieces entombed in such a thick lagging jacket. But forgiveable.