Someone has blowtorched years of paint off the exterior of Cusack’s pub in Dublin’s north inner city. It must be in preparation for a face-lift, but tonight it looks as if a passing dragon flew down, toasted the building to charcoal and left everything inside untouched.
The scorched pub makes Da Mimmo, on the opposite corner of North Strand Road, look even more box fresh. Nothing is burnt here, apart from the artfully blackened timbers cladding the counter in front of the brick oven, where pizzas rotate mesmerisingly inside its fiery depths.
Tino Fuscardi opened the original Da Mimmo a few doors down in 2010. It was a tiny pizza and pasta joint, cheap, cheerful and very good. The neighbourhood took it to its bosom as a place for homely Italian food on a strip where nothing else tasty was happening.
Six years later, a second outpost has transformed a hairdressers and a flooring shop into one tasteful grey box and stamped it with a Da Mimmo sign. The look inside is smart bistro, with the bare brick and bulb tropes that can sometimes signify all hip and no heart. A steel beam is used as an impromptu wine shelf.
They have packed as many tables as possible into the room, which is painted a purple-y grey, while still leaving enough space for the takeaway trade that comes in through the open door to place orders at the counter. And the door stays open for the whole of our meal. This is a hard-working place where the phrase “family-run” is more than just a menu cliche.
The bigger sister operation has dialled up the ambition. There are still pizzas and pasta. There’s even lasagne, such a retro dish it must be due a revival soon. But there are also dishes from the classic Italian cookbook of rustic restaurant fare, served at takeaway prices. And this is a restaurant run by feeders. If you go home hungry you have, as my mother would say, a bad case of hollow legs.
We kick off by smashing a glass in an accidental crutch topple. My friend is nursing, not a hollow leg, but a broken foot. Earlier she was offered some wry sympathy from another member of the walking wounded tribe. Crutches are tricky, unstable devils in small spaces.
The €9 shared house plate of antipasti is like a raid on the home of a talented Italian cook the day after they’ve thrown a big elaborate dinner involving days of preparation. There are eggy baked squares, meatballs, juicy mushrooms fried in breadcrumbs, good Parma ham and chewy discs of salami.
It’s a platter of crunch and squidge to eat at a leisurely pace, the bigger meatier flavours interspersed with sundried tomatoes, good olives and cakey house-made bread. There’s smoked scamorza cheese and calamari rings stuffed with sausage meat that look like cross-sections of bones that are all marrow and hardly any bone. As house platters go, this is my kind of house.
Next up, juicy orange clams in their shells are stirred into a hearty bowl of spaghetti with roasted to bursting cherry tomatoes and pistachio nuts. My huge plate of risotto is like an autumn romp through the woods and on into dairy country. Clumps of Italian sausage have been stirred into this concoction, which is more orange than a tango-ed teenager, with long-stemmed mushrooms, cream, butter and parmesan all spun into silk over nutty rice – with just enough saffron for a woodsy finish.
A side of grilled vegetables could have been hotter, but that’s the only wrinkle. Well, that and the fact that we are so close to the other tables we could nab a forkful of their dinner without a stretch.
A spine-straighteningly strong espresso is poured over vanilla ice cream for an affogato to finish. Again it’s simple. You could make this dessert at home, but only if you had a good espresso maker and a tub of better-than-average gelato in the freezer. We leave with two doggy boxes of leftovers and large grins.
This part of Dublin has had a tough year, so Da Mimmo is more than just a great neighbourhood restaurant grown out of a small humble seed. It’s a delicious act of defiance.
Dinner for two with two glasses of wine came to €64.30.
Da Mimmo, 148 North Strand Road, Dublin 3; tel: 01-8561714
Food provenance: None
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Limited
THE VERDICT: Hearty Italian cooking in a stylish neighbourhood restaurant