A taste of Italy

For years Campo de’ Fiori has been racking up decent reviews and regular customers. When it comes to the kitchen, Marco Roccasalvo is capable of memorable dishes.

IN MANY ways, Italian restaurants are to eating what Irish pubs are to drinking. Both offer an easy experience. Both are grounded in familiar fare. Neither do dress codes. Both value comfort over a challenge, and both go down a treat in pretty much any Western culture.

Simply calling a restaurant Italian, of course, only goes so far. I had a terrible meal recently at one — the pizza was strewn with salty, sub-standard pepperoni; tables were left uncleared all around us. Another meal at La Cucina in Limerick, however — a deli that seats no more than 20 people — was one of my best casual dining experiences of the year so far.

For years, Campo de’ Fiori has been racking up decent reviews and regular customers. It’s Bray’s best restaurant and, like Botticelli’s in Temple Bar, it oozes unpretentious authenticity.

Call to book, and an Italian voice answers the phone. Open the menu, and the dishes (though not the descriptions) are in Italian. It does a good tiramisu. There’s a plump bottle of olive oil on the table.

There are plenty of Italian customers too — always an encouraging sign. Last winter, Campo won the Readers’ Choice award at the Food & Wine Magazine Awards for the second year running.

Lately, however, change has been afoot. For years, this unassuming little eatery hid away on the ground floor of a Victorian pile on Strand Road. Now, the restaurant has moved to a contemporary space facing the sea, an Italian-style market has materialised in the old premises, and a little coffee shop operates across the road. Campo is becoming Bray’s Little Italy.

We’ve eaten several times in the old restaurant, squeezing into its low-lit warren of rooms, kicking back in the glow of waxy candles and overheard conversations. The new venture brings extra tables and elbow room, but sacrifices atmosphere. It could be any restaurant, anywhere.

When it comes to the kitchen, Marco Roccasalvo is certainly capable of memorable dishes.

Tonnarelli all’Astice e gamberi, for instance, laces egg spaghetti with half a lobster, a tiger prawn ragout and Italian hill tomatoes. It’s a small portion but excellent value at €19.50. The pizzas are served on properly thin bases too, with quality toppings and no price higher than €14.50.

We order pizza for the kids to share (€12.90, with a soft drink and ice-cream). It comes with very flavoursome olives, a drizzle of oil loitering at the sweet spot where the tomato sauce meets a rising rim, and a scattering of ham. It is also heart-shaped.

Our best dish is the calamaretti oregano e pomodoretto, one of Campo’s specialities — a gungey helping of baby squid, cherry tomatoes, oregano and chilli. The sauce is rich and spicy; the squid squiggly-legged, the tomatoes bursting open the minute I pop them into my mouth.

It’s heavy, herby and comforting.

L’s tiger prawns and scallops, meanwhile, come doused in a delicate brandy sauce that doesn’t justify a €13.70 price tag (it’s a starter portion). My tagliata, which the menu makes a big deal of, takes the form of a medium-rare fillet steak served on a porcini mushroom sauce with a few little floret-shaped roasts, tinged with saffron.

The meat is tender and deftly grilled. But the mushrooms have been pulverised to a squidge, dominate the dish, and I’m tasting them for hours afterwards. Worth the experiment, though.

Other choices to consider include cod cooked with Sicilian capers, Apulian olives and Sardinian grey mullet roe, or tagliatelle with goose and asparagus tips.

I’ve enjoyed the Pizza Diavolo (spicy salami, chilli and mozzarella), and the antipasti board includes good cured meats and grilled vegetables.

Service is casual and friendly, as you’d expect and our waitress recommends a good glass of house Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which connects both with the squid and steak.

Like a good Irish pub, Campo de’ Fiori has an easy charm, a comforting aura, reliable basic fare and a tinge of rewarding complexity.

A three-course early bird offers great value for €25, too. This wasn’t a vintage visit, but we’ll certainly be back.

THE TAB: Dinner for two adults and two children, sharing pizza, came to €68.70. Tip extra.

The verdict:

Food: 6/10

Service: 6/10

Ambiance: 6/10

Wine: 7/10

Value: 7/10

Campo de’ Fiori, Strand Road, Bray, Co Wicklow; 01-2764257; campodefiori.ie


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