You’ll be delighted to know (finally, perhaps) that there is method in whatever passes for madness these days.
Two weeks ago on this page, I was waxing lyrical about a swish Italian restaurant in Dublin by the name of Osteria Lucio.
It is the kind of restaurant to which you might bring business clients, so that they’d leave impressed both with your decision — demonstrating how high you hold them in your esteem — and the food, which is fine-dining at moderate prices.
As such, this time out, we thought we’d stick with an Italian restaurant, but show instead a completely different modus operandi by people that don’t always play by the ground rules (and whose looks can be deceiving), yet can conjure up authentic food and an evocative atmosphere in a terrific but uncomplicated manner.
For starters, unless you know exactly where Terra Madre is, you’d easily walk past it. Located in a basement premises on the North Quay of the Liffey, between O’Connell Bridge and Ha’penny Bridge, you negotiate the entrance via a spindly staircase. Just before you enter, on the basement floor — which is little more than several square feet — is single table for two.
During balmy summer evenings (a rarity in Ireland, as we know) you can sit here for hours on end, mulling over the world’s problems, and your own if you have a mind to, while sipping wine. You can do exactly the same inside the restaurant, but if you’re claustrophobic beware: Terra Madre is tiny.
Because it can accommodate fewer than 18 people (at a pinch), this may not be the place to have a serious conversation that you don’t want people to overhear. What Terra Madre is, however, is a riot of colourful, clamorous ambience.
The man in charge looks as if he’s been picked out of central casting for an episode of The Sopranos, and the chef — sporting a pair of cut-off shorts, a worn T-shirt and long hair in a bun — may channel the casual awareness of someone you hope knows what he’s doing, but take no notice of this. These men display a confidence that instantly puts you at ease: They know what they’re doing, so sit down, and prepare for the best, because that’s what you’ll get.
The menu (which arrives on a single sheet of paper that may or may not have food or oil stains on it) changes on a regular basis, seemingly predicated on what’s available. Again, don’t be too quick to frown, the food here is amazing.
We chose two items from the antipasti menu and two from the primi menu. The two former are Terra Madre bruschetta — four breads topped with talli de cappero (wild caper sprouts), lardo di colonnata (a Ligurian speciality of pork fat and mixed herbs), finocchiona Toscana salami (a variation on regular Tuscan salami that is richly flavoured with wild fennel seeds), and wild cardoncelli mushrooms — and mozzarella di Buffala with pesto and capers.
The flavours are a delight, and while the lardo di colonnata (in essence, as artery-abusive as it comes) is usually something I’d avoid like bursts of improvisational jazz, I have to admit it is gorgeous.
Items from the primi menu are pappardelle (broad, flat pasta noodles, similar to wide fettuccine; the name is derived from the verb “pappare”, to quickly eat up) with wild boar ragout alla Toscana, and gnocchi with rabbit and pepper ragout. The pasta, we are told, is imported directly from Italy, and, while tasty, this is all about the sauces, which are rich but subtle.
As all of this is going on, the head honcho comes over to us and tells us in faltering English exactly what the food consists of, where it was made and how to make it. He tops up the water and the wine in such a non-fussy manner you might as well be at home with him.
We don’t have dessert, so we linger over the wine, our original choice of a bottle of Nero Davola is superseded by a recommendation of a cheaper bottle of Barbera d’Asti, a Piedmont wine we’re unfamiliar with. The truth? If we hadn’t been driving home, we would have ordered another bottle.
We didn’t, however, so we stayed put for another little while in this unpretentious, simple restaurant that adheres to a tradition of preparing and cooking food the way you’d expect to experience in trattorias in the hills of Tuscany or Campania. Just because Terra Madre isn’t fancy or even semi-luxurious, doesn’t mean it isn’t fantastic, and its wholesome food is full of flavour. It is all of this and more. It genuinely is.
Terra Madre, 13a Bachelors Walk, Dublin 1; 01-8735300; terramadre.ie
THE TAB: Dinner for two, with wine, came to €74, €10 tip.
HOW TO: Sun-Mon, 5pm-10pm; Tues-Thurs, 12.30pm-10pm; Fri-Sat: 12.30pm-11pm.
In a sentence: A tiny Italian restaurant with uncomplicated authenticity ringing out loud and clear.
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