It's a curious thing, but many countries have a gastronomic centre, a city or region where the food is better than in other parts of that country.
In France, it's Lyons and its environs; in Spain, it's the Basque coast; in the USA, it's New Orleans and in Italy, it's a region called the Emilia- Romagna. This region is centred on Bologna, a name with a culinary pedigree, but it also includes Parma, home to fine hams and the great cheese Parmesan. When I was a young man, I was involved in bringing a wine from this region to Ireland. It was a sparkling, light red wine called Lambrusco. Since then, tastes in wines have changed and sweet wines are now decidedly only for the dessert course.
Lambrusco disappeared from the shelves, but those trips I made to Modena introduced me to the region’s gastronomy, and I've become a huge fan of their cuisine. One of the things that differentiates the food of the region is that, in this area, there is butter and cream. Traditionally, southern Italian cooking made no use of butter or cream, and olive oil replaced butter. But in the Emilia they use butter with a kind of reckless abandon, relishing the unctuous flavour it gives sauces.
On my way home from Italy this year, I met Róisín Ní Mhórdha, a PR lady and passionate foodie, who told me about a little place in Liffey Street called ‘Taste of Emilia', which specialises in food from that region. We decided then and there that we'd go together, and this week we did. Taste of Emilia describes itself as an ‘Italian Deli/Salumeria and Wine Bar'. By the way, a ‘salumeria' is a place that sells cured meats. So from the description alone, you'll know that it's not a restaurant and you won't get cooked dishes.
We got three bills of fare, a single sheet with the day's special, the general menu and a wine list. The day's special was buffalo mozzarella with Parma ham, and we both decided to start with that. The menu begins with a one-page listing of ‘taglieri', which are platters of cold cuts. There are eight to choose from, and they range in price from €15 to €20. Apart from the cheese platter, the others are various combinations of prosciutto, mortadella, culatello, salami, carpaccio and bresaola. All platters come with garnish and bread included.
The next couple of pages on the menu carry sandwiches, bruschette, panini and wraps. Helpfully, all the bruschette are accompanied with a photo, so you can see what you'll get. As an aside, here's a brief Italian lesson — one panino, two panini, one bruschetta, two bruschette. The ubiquitous ‘paninis' is a bit like saying ‘breadses'.
Both Róisín and I ordered a bruschetta to follow our special of the day. Róisín decided on the ‘Sole Mio’ and I chose the Classico. Turning to the wines, I found a short but entirely Italian list. Well-priced too; you could have a bottle of Merlot from the Veneto for €16, or a Chardonnay from the Trentino for €18. But what caught my eye was the section marked ‘Sparkling Reds', of which there were two, both Lambruscos.
One was the classic sweet one, the other a dry version called ‘Lambrusco Ottocentonero', which was €19 by the bottle or €5 by the glass. We ordered a glass each. Sparkling red wines are perhaps a little unusual, but they have their place. Personally, I think they make a perfect accompaniment to fowl, like guineafowl or turkey, but they also work wherever a red wine is called for.
Our first courses arrived on a board, with a large 250-gramme buffalo mozzarella sliced on to each, covered with wafer-thin slices of Parma ham, rocket leaves with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and tasty black olives. This is pretty much what I'd consider a lunch when I'm Italy, and I began to doubt our wisdom in ordering a bruschetta to follow. Not only was this a very good dish, it was also very filling. After this, we got our bruschette, which were served on a board and prepared as you'd prepare a pizza, except the base was made of a large, thick slice of bread. It had already been cut into portions small enough to pick up and eat with fingers, but neither of us was able to finish.
Róisín's ‘Sole Mio' was covered with tomato sauce, cheese, basil, rocket and sunblushed tomatoes, while mine, the ‘Classico', was topped with tomato sauce, cheese, ham and field mushrooms. When we'd ordered this, I thought I might still go hungry, but I was wrong. This was simple food, well done, properly sourced and plenty filling. All that we needed now was an espresso to finish. You've probably seen me write this before, but finding a well-made espresso in Ireland is not so easy. It's down to the ‘crema', the light brown foam that should be on the top of your espresso, like the head on a Guinness. If it's right and thick enough, it'll support a spoonful of sugar for a moment before it settles through into the coffee. Here it did exactly that. At last, a proper and excellent espresso.
With two bottles of sparkling water, this brought our bill to €52, which I thought was good value.
VALUE FOR MONEY 9/10
Taste of Emilia
1, Liffey Street Lower
Tel. 01 878 8188