La Dolce Vita

 

Italians in IrelandWe are tripping over ourselves to get married there, can't get enough of their food, and are just about to get up close and personal with Italian football management, courtesy of a certain Signor Giovanni Trapattoni. So why all the amore?, asks Fiona Tyrrell.

DR LUCIO ALBERTO SAVOIA, the Italian ambassador to Ireland, says Ireland's love affair with Italy can be expalined by our shared artistic attitude and similar temperaments. The Irish are the Mediterranean people of the north, he says, and we, like the Italians, "use language to express the soul."

The current resident of Lucan House, the ambassador's official residence, this love affair has taken a decidedly literal turn in recent years, with the ongoing fashion for Irish couples to get married in Italy. The Italian embassy, according to Dr Savoia, receives so many inquiries about weddings in Italy - an average of 15 a day - that it has been necessary to place a pre-recorded message on the embassy's phone service directing calls to the Irish embassy in Rome.

Why Italy? "Well, weddings are less expensive than Ireland and there seem to be as many Irish pubs there," the ambassador jokes.

Dr Savoia has been resident in Lucan House since 2005, but he is no stranger to Dublin. He spent a number of years here in the 1980s, working for the embassy and living in Sandymount with his wife, Maria Anita, and two children, Valentia and Alexander. The children, who now live abroad, attended school in Dublin and as a result now "speak D4", he says.

He clearly enjoys the refined elegance of life in the Palladian villa, and its magnificent gardens, where, he says, the weather always picks up anytime a visitor calls. On the Italian national holiday, when Lucan House hosts a large party for the Italian community, "the sun always shines," he says.

For most Italians living in Ireland, the weather is the biggest difficultly, he admits. He, however, proudly announces that on his last trip home to Italy he picked up a cold.

The ambassador does not believe in a diplomat living a life cut off from the country they are posted to. He and his wife regularly take the bus into Dublin city at the weekends, to enjoy a slice of modern Dublin life.

Like previous ambassadors, Dr Savoia is mindful of the historical significance of Lucan House for Irish people and tries to open the doors as often as possible.

Built on the site of Irish military leader Patrick Sarsfield's castle, Lucan House is regarded as one of the finest Georgian buildings in Ireland. It stands on 40 acres of parkland between the River Liffey and the old Galway Road.

The current house was built in 1772 by Admondisham Vesey, who had a keen interest in architecture. Its circular dining room is said to have inspired the Oval Office of the White House, which was built by Irishman James Hoban. This, Dr Savoia insists, is not just one of those "nice stories". He points to a letter written by the wife of the then president of the United States (Dolly Madison) to Lucan House inquiring about the number of curtains in the dining room.

The house has many Italian references, and it is said that its first owner modelled the villa on the Venetian villas he visited during his "grand tour".

The grounds are home to a monument in honour of Patrick Sarsfield, a Norman castle, a small church with adjoining graveyard and former oratory which houses a thermal pool. It is reported that this water was bottled on the spot and sold in Dublin for medicinal purposes.

Since 1948 Lucan House has been home to successive Italian ambassadors. It is one of the few Irish Georgian homes to remain in such a good state of preservation, thanks to the careful maintenance work carried out by the ambassadors and their wives. Their presence has left a subtle imprint on the house, most notably in the Greco-Roman inspired furnishings used throughout the house.

Dr Savoia's favourite room is the dainty powder blue and white Wedgewood room. It is decorated in delicate plasterwork, and images of the Roman goddess Minerva abound. This is where the ambassador serves his guests coffee, and it's always hot, black and very strong.

The library is painted in a startling orange, which Dr Savoia explains was inspired by the orange colour of the exposed bricks in Pompeii.

During formal events the oval dining room is decked out in a stunning collection of amber-coloured hand-made glassware from Venice, and from late spring on, the kitchen windowsill is used to grow basil. Much of the living in the house is done in the circular sitting room, which has splendid views over the river. Life in a Palladian villa does have a few downsides, according to Dr Savoia. With 50 windows and no double-glazing, it is difficult to keep warm, and heating bills of €1,000 a month are not unusual.

When it comes to food, like most Italians, Dr Savoia becomes quite passionate. As a southern Italian, he likes his food simple - no butter, just a little oil, and the fewer flavours the better. The southern Italian diet has been influenced by generations of poverty, he says, and as a result is very healthy, while northern cuisine is much richer. Though not voiced, it is clear Dr Savoia prefers the cuisine of mama's table.

"Culinary crimes" he has come across while in Ireland include pasta carbonara made with cream - "disgusting" - and pasta swimming in so much red sauce that the taste of the pasta is overwhelmed.

The problem, the ambassador suggests delicately, is that there are many restaurants where "the name may be Italian, but the people inside are not." Italian recipes are "adjusted" for Irish palates and the results can sometimes be unpleasant.

When not eating the food of his native country, the ambassador is fond of a decent Irish stew, Dublin Bay prawns and colcannon.

Patrick Sarsfield aside, for Dr Savoia one of Lucan House's most compelling historical links is its former resident Elizabeth Vesey, who was one of the founders of the Bluestocking Society - an 18th-century literary discussion groups for women.

The story goes that Mrs Vesy as a literary hostess welcomed all manner of intellectuals and writers to her homes in London and Dublin. When one Benjamin Stillingfleet, a reclusive writer, declined the invitation on the grounds that he lacked appropriate formal dress, she told him to come "in his blue stockings" - the informal worsted stockings of the day.

Dr Savoia's wife Maria Anita, an Anglo-American literary scholar, is currently researching Mrs Vesey and her circle. The couple have kept alive the tradition she started and regularly welcome artists, poets and writers to Lucan House.

Dr Savoia is also looking forward to the arrival of Giovanni Trapattoni at the start of next month to take up his position as Ireland football manager, and says he is unlikely to feel homesick. "I feel so at home here because there are so many Italians living in Ireland." Giovanni Trapattoni, he feels, will do very well in Ireland. As he was born on March 17th, St Patrick will step in to give him a hand, he says.

Dr Lucio Alberto Savoia's mama's red pasta sauce(serves six)

1 carrot, chopped

1 stalk of celery, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

800g of peeled tomatoes

1 cup of olive oil

Dash of white wine

Handful of fresh basil leaves

500g of pasta

Fry the vegetables very slowly in the olive oil with a dash of white wine. Added 800g of peeled tomatoes and cook for 1hr 30 mins. Add fresh basil leaves. Serve with pasta and some Parmesan cheese on top. Add oregano if you have high cholesterol.

Sean Magnetti's grandmother's Bucatini Al'Amatriciana - a typical Roman red pasta sauce(serves four)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Half an onion

Half a glass dry white wine

5 or 6 very ripe fresh tomatoes, skinned (tinned plum tomatoes will do)

200g guanciale of pork (cured pork cheek). If this is not available use pancetta bacon (100g plain and 100g smoked) or, as a poor alternative, streaky bacon.

300g finely grated pecorino cheese (Parmesan will also do)

500g bucatini pasta (alternatively, use another short pasta such as rigatoni)

Heat the olive oil in a deep pan, and when it is hot add the diced onion and allow it to sweat for one minute. Dice the guanciale into small cubes and add to the pan. Fry for five minutes until the meat begins to brown and turn crispy, but make sure the onion does not burn.

Add the white wine and let it cook off for 30 seconds. Add the chopped fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 15 minutes.

While this is cooking, boil a pot of water and add some salt. Place the bucatini pasta in the water and cook to al dente (three and a half minutes for fresh pasta or eight minutes for dried pasta).

Drain the water off, add the sauce to the pasta and mix well together. Serve with sprinkle of pecorino cheese on top.