I was sitting with my friend Miriam Thornton in a tiny restaurant in Terenure called Lisa's Trattoria. I've passed it a few times and decided to call in one day as part of my continuing search for decent Italian food. This was that day. And things were looking good. The smell was right for a start. As soon as we'd entered I could smell the ragu, and it smelt like the ragu in my part of Italy. Just like Proust and his Madeleines, the smell evoked all kinds of childhood memories; my aunt Gerardella stirring the ragu on top of the wood-fired range, the smell of boiling tomatoes mixed with wood smoke from the range, the big pot of rigatoni seething on the hot-plate, my grandmother grating the Parmesan for the table.
I put aside my memories and looked at my surroundings. It's a small room, seating maybe thirty people, the walls are covered with Italian bric-a-brac, fiascos of Chianti hung from the ceiling, the tables and chairs are trattoria-typical. Along with the menus we'd been given a basket of hot bread and a jug of iced water, so put instantly at ease and thirst and hunger pangs sorted, we took our time with the menu. It's quite long - the starters have all the dishes that you've come to expect in restaurants that describe themselves as 'Italian'; bruschetta, crostini, mozzarella salad and so on, but interestingly it also listed some specialities from Lazio, home-made meatballs (polpette) in tomato sauce and home-made sausages with beans (salsiccie e fagioli).
The wine list is brief enough, two pages, one of Italian wines and one of wines from other countries. There's a few decent reds from Frescobaldi, some budget wines and a couple of pricey reds - Brunello and an Amarone. One of the Frescobaldi wines was the Castello di Nipozzano, which I've always enjoyed so I picked that . A bottle of Santa Croce mineral water completed the drinks.
Miriam was keen to try some of examples of provincial Italian cookery and so was I, so she chose the salsiccie to start and I chose the meatballs. When these arrived, if I'd closed my eyes, I could have sitting in the trattoria Colle del Gobbo, which sits high in hills overlooking Fontechiari. The smells were right, the tastes were right, only the sound of the grilli was absent. Finally, I thought to myself, finally a taste of Ciociaria - my part of Italy - in Ireland.
As Miriam and I chatted about her latest venture - marble and Travertine sales on line - I felt myself absorbed by the atmosphere of Lisa's trattoria. It's warm and cosy, friendly and busy. The service is quick and any dish can be explained to the uninitiated. Our main courses arrived, and we settled into them. We'd both picked a risotto, Miriam the sea-food one (the marinara) on the recommendation from our waitress, and me the risotto made with porcini or ceps. Of the two I preferred the mushroom risotto; the seafood one was plentiful and generous, there was lots of seafood in it. It's worth mentioning here that the seafood risotto was made with tomato sauce and was therefore red. Don't go looking for Arborio rice in a red risotto, we don't do that down Lazio way.
What I liked about Lisa's was what in Italy is called its 'genuiness'. The tastes and the flavours were totally authentic, the style of cooking exactly what I'd expect to find in a trattoria in Lazio. Simple, uncomplicated dishes, but with a purity of substance. The ingredients were good, even the olive oil on the table was a good one - in this case from the Mantova brothers, whose olive oil processing factory is just outside Sora in Broccostella. Meals like this are commonplace in Italy, where a 'trattoria' is a simple eatery without the sophistication or price of a 'ristorante'. You expect good food from them, but not great culinary heights. Common as they may be in Italy, they're as rare as hen's teeth here, so finding this place was a real pleasure for me.
The prices are also in keeping with its trattoria style: starters cluster around €5-€7, although we'd both picked starters at €8.50, the most expensive. Main courses are mostly under €20, my risotto was just €13. Miriam's marinara was the most expensive, largely due to the generous portion of seafood it contained, at €24. We finished up with a couple of espressos and got a bill for €90.50 which didn't include service. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Lisa's is that I'd be happy to take an Italian visitor there.