Serving up a treat

La Cucina, 5 University Court, Castletroy, Co Limerick; 061-333980; italianfoodies.ie

FOR a country that communicates so much down the pub, over the garden fence, or on street corners, Ireland is strangely bereft of neighbourhood eateries.

Beyond the bigger cities, and some notable seaside (and seasonal) exceptions, the kinds of bistros and trattorias we take for granted in Spain, France or Italy — with their punch-fresh, unpretentious fare — just aren’t a fixture of the average Irish streetscape.

That’s one of the things that makes La Cucina so special. Stashed away on University Court, Lorraine Fanneran and Bruno Coppola’s restaurant and takeaway has a real moths-to-a-flame feel about it. With couples lingering over glasses of wine, students grabbing quick fixes and passers-by dropping in for pizzas and pasta, it’s filling a perfect neighbourhood niche.

Castletroy isn’t the sexiest corner of Limerick. But in this social media century of ours, neighbourhoods are not defined by geography alone. La Cucina punches way above its weight online, with customers invited to Tweet using the hashtag #lacucina (Lorraine and Bruno go by @italianfoodie and @mritalianfoodie on Twitter), and a network of fans and friends kicking into action whenever anyone is looking for a restaurant recommendation in Limerick.

“He was the stylish Italian with a passion for Italian food who spent his summers in Italy; she was the ambitious blonde who spent her summers in Tramore, hated pesto and called gnocchi ‘yucky’,” runs the bubbly website biog. And the exuberance continues inside.

Pulling up one of barely 20 stools, I settle into a tiny room splashed with photographs of sunny Italian scenes, with cookbooks, children’s doodles, a counter crammed with cakes and pizza, and a fridge full of Real Italian Foodie sauces. An A3-sized menu covers all the bases from pizzas to pastas, salads and antipasti, alongside an image of a sauce-covered spoon.

I kick off with a zesty plate of meats, cheeses and roast vegetables for just €6. I love the rustic theatre to antipasti plates, and this doesn’t disappoint: a painterly arrangement of textures and colours includes the vinegary squelch of aubergine and courgette, a flowery bloom of bresaola, a salty-sharp pecorino, crispy bread, buttery olives and splotchety pink salami.

The pastas range widely, from amatriciana to a spaghetti special lathered in a creamy mix of smoked salmon and tomato. The pasta has a yummy combination of bite and squish, winding around my fork in good old napkin-splattering fashion. On another visit, a farfalle pasta salad paired Ummera smoked chicken from West Cork with super-zingy lemon and mint.

Pizzas range from €10 to €13, with a calabrese (Italian sausage, pepperoni, peppers and chilli) combining meat, heat, a thin base and gooey mozzarella.

It’s a very casual buzz. Although you can sit and cosset a bottle of wine, La Cucina doesn’t take bookings, soft drinks arrive in cans, takeaway customers stream in and out, and the wine list is limited to six or seven choices of both red and white (all of which are served by the glass).

Calling it a ‘restaurant’ doesn’t quite fit, but again, that’s where the neighbourhood niche comes in. There’s a breezy ease between staff and regulars, and it’s clear that a lot of care has gone into staples like the Italian olives, the caprese, the glistening Parma ham, the fresh herbs and the sweet and delicious sundried tomato pesto. The authenticity is effortless.

Just as I’m readying to leave, another local character walks in — a hulking figure in a tracksuit and trainers. Whipping off his beanie hat, Paul O’Connell runs his eyes over the menu and specials board, ordering a bowl of chicken penne “without the cream”.

A buff maul of Munster colleagues follows him to the middle of the room, where they pull a few pews up around a table and tuck into a feast of real Italian food.

Nobody bats an eyelid. La Cucina is that kind of place.

THE TAB: Antipasto, pasta, side salad and ice cream for one cost €24.50. On a separate visit, dinner for a family of four cost €50. Tips extra.

HOW TO: Monday to Friday 10am-9.30pm; Saturday 12noon-9.30pm; closed Sundays & bank holidays

The verdict:
Food: 7/10
Ambiance: 8/10
Value: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Wine: 4/10

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