In case you hadn’t noticed the name and general preoccupation of this publication I should start by clarifying that this piece is not about London’s Bar Italia. That venerable Frith Street café opened its doors in 1946 and has since been variously credited with introducing the English to espresso, wild gesticulation and the other two sexual positions. I’m sure I was familiar with a couple of those things as a young buck spending a mid-nineties Summer in the city but I do vividly recollect once having Special K there at about half three on a Sunday morning. Really sets one up for the day. Dublin’s Bar Italia (Ristorante) can’t quite compete in terms of antiquity but the place has been slinging spaghetti by the river for almost 25 years now and that’s a lifetime in restaurant years.
The place opened in 1999 on Ormond Quay as part of a notional Northside ‘Italian Quarter’ dreamt up by an eccentric but kindly property developer whose name escapes me. I’m not quite sure how ‘Italian’ the quarter has remained but perhaps the name always suggested that 75% of the other tenants would be from anywhere but there. The whole brand thing can be tricky. I suppose I patronised the place semi-regularly in the early 2000’s but I really don’t recall the food ever being special in any way, K or otherwise. It was, perfectly fine but nothing to write (home) about. This is certainly no longer the case.
The room on a Thursday night is full with the clatter and chatter of a restaurant running at full tilt. The room has a sort of high-shine, wipe-down luxe feel about it. Lipstick but also flats because it knows it will be run off its feet. There’s more than a few couples, both of the date-night and swipe-right variety, some open-collar office types and the kind of swivel-eyed tourists who you wish would loosen up a bit. There are no scenesters and nobody is photographing their food. We lean right into the humour of the place with some beyond irony aperitivo choices – a glass of (remarkably good) Ferrari Brut Spumante and a Martini Bianco, served per the menu ‘like a (sic) Rimini 1980’. It’s a disco in a glass and I know I’ll be seeing you on the dancefloor soon.
You’ll note pretty quickly that the service is attentive in a way that is difficult to train and vanishingly rare in Dublin. The servers, male and female, just seem to know how to read their sections – checking in on that two-top that’s gone quiet, explaining how the kitchen puts the peerless Carbonara together for a group that clearly wants to know. I enjoyed watching the crew work the floor before I had a bite to eat. It’s dinner and a show.
That first bite came from a specials board that you should pay attention to. Alongside pitch-perfect renditions of the classics the kitchen here writes original material too. Langoustines (billed as Dublin Bay Scampi) come out simply split, grilled and anointed with a delicate salsa verde. There’s no fuss, just great ingredients treated with respect. A cool glass of Gavi pairs nicely. Rolle’ di diaframma ripieno, also from the specials board brings a battened out piece of bavette, stuffed with friarelli (also known as cimi di rapa or broccoli rabe), smoked provolone and culatello. The dish is then finished with a tangle of mushrooms bound with a rich beef jus. It sounds like a lot but the whole comes together beautifully. It’s a real showstopper and the first indication that this is not the Bar Italia I used to know.
All pastas are made in-house (fatta da noi) and the six dishes listed sound great. My eye however is drawn to a note under the listing stating that ‘We are always happy to make you an original carbonara or arrabiata…’. Very well then.
The vivid crimson of the Sugo Arrabiata served with tagliatelle is fruity and sweet with saved-up sunshine. You’ll be asked if you’d like to punch it up with some extra peperoncino. Taste first – you might not want to turn the ‘angry’ that the dish’s name refers to into incandescent rage. The habit in Lazio (where it originates) is to serve a little more sauce than the fancy Danilos up in Milano. This is not a bad thing. Go with it. This is as good as it gets.
The carbonara here is a savoury gut-punch to the stoutest of appetites, a Roman take on bacon and eggs that could lay you out in an alleyway. Made with thick twists of Strozzopretti (priest stranglers) it is as extraordinarily rich and savoury as it should be. It may have even have taken the ‘best I’ve ever had’ crown from Il Posto Accanto on 2nd Street in the East Village. It deserves a glass of Brunello and gets it. I’ll be back to try the Cacio e Pepe on my own dime sometime soon and possibly senza una donna too. The better to really get to know it. A textbook Tiramisu rounds out a faultless dinner.
At lunch a couple of days later bambini are being dandled and there’s a nonna who has no intention of taking those sunglasses off. I’ve returned to sample the pizza that I’ve heard so much about. This is Pinsa – a Roman style for which the kitchen ferments a dough for 72 hours using a blend of wheat, soy and flours to achieve lightness and digestibility. Our Norcina is topped with Fior di Latte mozzarella, house-made wild fennel sausage and mushrooms and it’s sensational. Mid-pinsa a charming and voluble man who I suspect is the floor manager intervenes with a slightly pained expression to ask if he might bring us a couple of small glasses of beer. ‘You can of course have whatever you like, but with this pizza, I think if you try you will see…’ It’s a nice little gesture and one underpinned by a particular kind of Italian generosity and pride in their food culture – we have a way of doing things. It’s an invitation to do it better rather than an admonishment that you’re not doing it right.
We now have great pizza in Dublin, from Neapolitan to grandma slices. The style here is unique and worth the price of admission alone. A note at the top of the restaurant’s website tells how the kitchen used the poxy period of lockdown to perfect their fresh pastas and to develop that remarkable Pinsa. Bravo to them – they’ve succeeded in raising the bar higher than I could have imagined.
The warmth that you feel as you walk back over the Millennium bridge is not entirely explained by the complimentary grappa, it’s down to the genuine warmth of the hospitality and the feeling that you’ve been looked after by some people who take a deserved pride in feeding you well. This place is a joy.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Sean Breithaupt
Bar Italia Ristorante
26 Ormond Quay Lower