Carluccio’s on Dawson Street is a busy and buzzy Italian emporium over two floors on the corner of Duke Street. Antonio Carluccio’s is the godfather of Italian cooking, blazing a trail when Jamie was only a twinkle. Paolo is a long-time fan, and shared an excellent lunch, while more recently Gerard went along and ate like an Italian on a packed Friday evening. First up is Paolo:
I'll confess I feel an affinity with this chef; after all, there are similarities between us. We both have an Italian name and heritage, we've both written books about mushrooms, we both cook, and we are both -- how can I put this delicately? -- a little portly.
You won't, of course, see the man himself there -- this is a franchise -- but the formula for this café bar is of his making. Carluccio is now a brand. He doesn't just sell food in the outlets that bear his name; there's a whole range of Italian produce with 'Carluccio' written on it. Pasta, olive oil, sauces and breads are all part of the range, and you can find them all in Dublin's outlet.
It's a curious fact that I've pondered over, that Italian food in London has always been far better than what we've been used to in Dublin. There are Italian restaurants in London where you can eat as you would in Italy and no one seems to think that's remarkable; here it would be a novelty. Either it's because we've been happy to accept poor quality, or worse, it's because we've been conditioned into accepting a peculiar half-Irish, half-Italian cuisine as the real thing.
I liked the look of the menu. It wasn't the usual offering of bruschetta, prosciutto, mozzarella and drizzled basil pesto, although those elements were there. It's just that there was a whole lot else to choose from: bagna cauda, focaccia, bocconcini, and one of my favourite dishes: Arancini.
By the time we'd sat down we already knew what we wanted. Calamari for Rocco and Arancini for me to start with; then fegato Veneziana (liver, Venetian- style) for Rocco and a mushroom risotto for me.
I'd picked the mushroom risotto as homage to Carluccio the mycologist, and immediately after I'd ordered I realised I was having rice for my starter and rice for main course. Very northern Italian.
The wine list is very short -- just seven whites and seven reds, plus a Prosecco and a couple of rosés, but it does have the benefit of being fairly priced. Every wine is available by the glass -- actually by two glasses -- and you can have a medium-sized glass or a big glass. We had a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and a Sicilian Nero d'Avola.
Despite being extraordinarily busy, the service was quick and efficient. There were enough floor staff to cope with the numbers -- a simple thing that other busy restaurants could do well to emulate.
Our starters were good, but if I were to be picky I'd have to say the calamari were just a tad chewy and my Arancini, which are Sicilian deep-fried rice balls, were a little shy on their fillings.
One contained mozzarella, the other a tomato ragù, but both in tiny quantities. Apart from that, it was pretty good. The main courses were also up to scratch. Rocco's liver dish was pretty tasty and he was well-pleased with it, although I'd have liked the liver a little less cooked. I had a very tasty mushroom risotto, but I'm not a fan of the modern tendency to undercook rice. Frankly, I don't like gritty risotto; I like it best when the rice is cooked through.
We finished up with a well made espresso each -- the kind I like, with a crema that still coated the inside of the demi-tasse after the coffee was drunk. Good coffee too. Our bill came to €72.40 without service charge, which wasn't remarkable value for money.
If you like your lunches Italian, crowded, buzzy and very up to the minute, you'll like Carluccio's.
And so to Gerard’s dinner.....
Picking from the pre starters and antipasti I put together a combination of Sicilian giant green olives, a plate of Parmesan chunks with aged sweet balsamic drizzled on top, and a plate of prosciutto; long cured Parma ham with a half ball of Buffalo mozzarella and drizzled olive oil. All the individual elements were well chosen and each had a particular flavour and texture, while complementing each other perfectly. The olives and aged Parmesan were a sweet and sour delight, while the ham and mozzarella were another iteration of this flavour combination, and didn't suffer by comparison.
Next up was the pasta course, an excellent example of classic spaghetti alla vongole; this is a plate of spaghetti with a simple white wine, garlic, chilli and clam dish, which is an Italian classic and the source of much disagreement in Italy about whose Vongole is better than others! Thos one was pretty damn good, and al dente spaghetti and a fishy, tasty sauce set me up for the main course.
I indulged with a lamb steak; grilled and with the bone in, with some Rosemary potatoes and a side of spinach with garlic. Simple flavours well combined, and while the lamb was tougher than a centre loin chop, the flavour was intense.
I couldn't manage a dessert and finished with a good coffee and made my way home in the cold with memories of Sicily and Venetian clams to keep me company. You need to try Carluccio’s if you're not already a fan; classic food, simply prepared and at excellent value for money prices with great service; what's not to like?
** At the moment you can enjoy two courses of an evening for €14.95, and add a glass of wine for only €3.95.