Despite the fact that it is located so bang in the centre of Temple Bar that you can hear accents from all over the world, Caffe Italiano is far removed from various other Italian eateries in the area which cater for the wearers of ‘isn’t Dublin great for the craic?’ t-shirts (not, I hasten to add, Il Vicoletto, which is located directly opposite this restaurant).
Another fact you need to be aware of is that while this place is in Temple Bar (quite likely the easiest place to find in Dublin) it isn’t particularly easy to find.
Indeed, it’s off the beaten track; turn onto a side street, through a narrow door — an adjunct to what some people call the ‘Crow Street Bazaar’ — and then it’s upstairs to the first floor with you. (There is a ground floor, off the street entrance, that acts as an 8am-6pm café and a somewhat more casual place to eat.)
Not that upstairs is formal. Oh, no — as you walk up the narrow staircase, you’re faced with the kind of freeform jazzy artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on Blue Note album covers designed in the 1950s.
Such artwork is continued around the walls, and adds a vaguely bohemian air to the already cool atmosphere. Factor in the music soundtrack of knowledgably curated jazz/blues — the right kind of music is crucial in compact restaurants such as this, yet we are continually surprised at how so many get it totally wrong — and you’d think you were somewhere much closer to the equator.
It’s a Tuesday evening, so there isn’t much of a customer buzz floating about the place, but by the window overlooking the street below there’s a couple whispering potentially sweet nothings to each other, and as we leave a group of well behaved 20-something blokes sit down, so we’re not totally alone.
Besides, there’s a level of easiness about this place, the lighting is soft, and the waiter is so authentically Italian he could be straight out of a Fellini movie. Much to like, then, and that’s just the ambience.
There are a couple of slight misdemeanours. Firstly, there’s a problem with the wine — something of a shortage. In succession we ask for a glass of two reds on the wine list only to be told they don’t have either of them in stock.
This seems odd, but apologies are sincere, and we reckon it’s such a small place perhaps it’s a stock control issue. Third time lucky, we go for a glass each of Nero d’Avola, a Sicilian wine with ripe cherry flavours.
We’d be into another glass, but it’s freezing outside, we have to drive home, and so we dip into the menu to keep our minds away from how responsible we are becoming.
From the Starter menu we choose Gamberi e Calamari (prawn and squid, which arrive lounging in a chilli oil sauce that brings beads of sweat to the brow; also, the squid is the least ‘chewiest’ I’ve ever eaten) and Saute Cozze Vongole (sautéed mussels and clams, served with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley and white wine).
Each dish is well proportioned, cooked perfectly, and tasty enough for the oil in each to be mopped up by the fresh bread the waiter left for us while we waited for the food to land on our table.
Mains arrive after several mood-setting jazz/blues songs. We have chosen more fish — Tagliatelle Gambero and Paccheri Zafferano Cod.
The former is as tasty as the starter; the prawns are ‘butterflied’, shaped so as to mop up more of the sauce.
This is a fiddly thing to do but worth the effort, as it looks appealing. Meanwhile, the latter (paccheri is large-tube pasta) comes stuffed with zingy morsels of fish that all too quickly disappear.
There’s a subtlety and studious finish to these dishes that belie the laidback surroundings, and if anything is highlighted it’s the care and attention afforded not only to the preparation, presentation and delivery of food but also to the customers sometimes puzzled looks.
In other words, anything we weren’t certain about, and queried, was answered in faltering but enthusiastically delivered English.
To conclude the meal, we ordered a dessert to share — Lemon Tart, which, considering the excellence that was proffered before, was a bit of a disappointment.
Not to worry — Caffe Italiano is a fine little place with oodles of character. Great in winter, but we’re guessing it’s a cracker when the sun is shining. Roll on July — only seven months to go!
Dinner for two, with wine, came to €69.50, tip extra.
Mon-Sun, 6pm-9pm. (Café section open Mon-Sat, 8am-6pm)
Caffe Italiano, 7 Crow Street, Temple Bar, Dublin; Tel: 01-5511206, www.caffeitaliano.ie