La Cucina Centro is a wonderfully funky addition to Limerick’s dining options, says Joe McNamee.
ONCE upon a time, a good old-fashioned ink-on-paper restaurant review was pretty much the primary route for a restaurant hoping to attract custom. Sure, you might advertise but that costs money and rare is the restaurant with a sufficient marketing budget.
The arrival of social media, in particular, the synchronous rise of smartphone and Twitter, changed the hospitality landscape forever, it now possible to establish a direct line to potential diners, bypassing traditional media routes and Twitter’s short format proved a perfect fit for an industry where downtime is usually doled out in mere minutes, as long as it takes to swill a coffee and indulge in some digital diversion.
Lorraine Fanneran and chef Bruno Coppola (her life and business partner) opened La Cucina, in Limerick, in 2003, yet only truly achieved national recognition once Fanneran joined Twitter in 2008.
As @ItalianFoodie, she posted early and often and was soon being dubbed the Queen of Irish Twitter. As her network grew, food critics travelled to see what all the fuss was about. Rave reviews, plaudits, awards, all began to pile up.
I recall the shock of a first visit to La Cucina, sited in an anonymous retail unit aligned to a suburban housing estate.
Shock was swiftly supplanted by slack-jawed awe, marvelling at the atmosphere generated, especially when rammed to the rafters on a Friday night and, crucially, food outstripped hype: fun, tasty and most flavoursome.
Built on pizza/pasta bedrock, menus continually pushed limits of a burgeoning clientele’s experience of Italian cuisine. Eventually, they won best casual dining at the RAI Restaurant Awards two years running.
While the original suburban outpost may have been an oddity, an outlier, La Cucina Centro’s arrival in the city centre adhered to a more calculated route, perhaps conscious of the need to justify a now-national reputation.
A nifty professional makeover of a commercial unit on Henry St combines funky industrial edge (dark walls, neon lighting, exposed cables and ducting overhead) with genuine trattoria warmth, the class of Berlin night club to which you’d happily bring your nonna/granny, all ages and types happily coexisting together.
Occupants of ‘proper’ tables to the rear of a buzzing room are having a whale of a time, no intention of leaving any time soon, but we happily perch on stools at a high table alongside the semi-open kitchen.
With wits about me, I’d have ordered a Negroni from a list of classic Italian cocktails but I’m distracted by an out-of-sorts La Daughter. Anyway, I have somehow purloined the thirst of an honest workingman so settle for a local quencher, Shannon IPA from Treaty City Brewery.
Three golden globes arrive (for only a fool fails to order arancini when in La Cucina), deep fried rice balls in crispy breadcrumb coating. There are three different fillings (variations of ham, sausage, peas, mushroom and saffron) but, to My Heart’s Delight’s disappointment, all include meat.
Concern disdainfully feigned by No 2 Son and I, we then then scoff the lot, dredging them in elegant garlic mayo. MHD’s smile returns with her very impressive plate of fresh (commendably!) Irish prawns sautéed in chilli and garlic.
No 2 Son oscillates between my elemental Nduja (a spicy Calabrian sausage) pizza and his traditionalist ham and mushroom, both good.
Fettucine is properly al dente as opposed to the glutinous ‘al denture’ pasta too often dished up elsewhere and sauce (sausage, porcini, truffle, cream and parmesan) is from the bass section of an umami orchestra.
The quantity, however, is utterly beyond me, delicate slip of thing that I am. Service deserves especial commendation, particularly our waiter, Marie-Angela, quietly competent and reassuringly knowledgeable, especially when guiding us to a poised organic Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (Torre Raone, Lucanto) of soft tannins and plummy fruit.
An ailing La Daughter is by now giving great lie to the GP’s all-clear, delivered earlier that morning.
Sympathetic staff furnish an extra chair as a makeshift bed but despite speeding up the scoff-rate on fare demanding an infinitely more indulgent pace, guilt is a too-bitter sauce.
Our half-eaten meal is boxed for takeaway, along with desserts, though much-feted Birramisiu (Tiramisiu made with black porter!) is sold out.
Reheated, later that night, it remains most pleasurable eating, though I reckon I still owe myself an infinitely more protracted return visit — a debt to be happily repaid in the near future.
€112.50 (excluding tip)
Monday to Wednesday, 9am-9pm; Thursday to Saturday, 9am-10pm; Sunday, 12pm-8pm
Tagline: “A wonderfully funky addition to Limerick’s dining options”
La Cucina Centro, Henry St, Limerick
Tel: 061-517400; www.lacucina.ie
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