Dublin is small – fact. The lovely thing about that is you know when something new pops up, sticking out like a freshly manicured thumb, but on the other hand it's rare that you "discover" a new place in the city – somewhere you feel almost sure only you know about.
Tucked away at the back of Dublin Castle on a cobblestone street however, is a tiny restaurant that's been quietly here since 2005 and feels like a secret pizzeria you stumble upon while on holiday in Bologna or another glorious food city in Italy.
I've written briefly about Bottega Toffoli before, but a spot this good deserved a second visit and I was even more impressed this time around.
Ran by a two-person team (Carlo cooks, Elaine's front of house), you won't find any white linen napkins here or swanky sommeliers swanning around. What you will find? Honest good food and a little nook you'd happily call home for the evening.
What's the vibes?
With just a simple sign hanging outside boasting 'Toffoli', you'd be forgiven for walking past and thinking it was a greasy spoon cafe or forgettable deli. Step inside though, and you're transported to a homely room with about five or so tables and a wide open view to the back, where glorious pizza smells waft out.
Specials are half written, half scribbled on a large chalkboard menu (a grilled seabass was scrawled on the evening I was there) and unlike other trendy restaurants in town there's no velvet cushions or exposed brick, with their rustic food being the focus point instead.
I went on a Saturday night on a double date and was glad I had the foresight to book. By 8pm Toffoli was packed full with all of the 12 people it could fit inside.
There's no rush or stress about the place and it almost feels like you're just hanging out in your own family kitchen as some pro Pizzaiolo takes care of the grub. Sit back, catch up and wait for the feast to begin.
What's on the menu?
Fresh and flavoursome starters include a Bruschetta (€3.50 per person), Caprese Salad with Buffalo Mozzarella (€8.50) and black olives, juicy and intense, while booze offerings are simple: "wine or beer?"
We went for the Antipasto for two (€15) but shared between four 'cos we knew we'd need some major pizza eating room. A loaded plate came out of creamy mozzarella, provolone cheese with parma ham and salami hiding soft chunks of bread and rainbow carrots drizzled with balsamic and incredible olive oil.
Eight hands dove in and attacked this delish Italian platter. Four mouths already satisfied.
We went for four pizzas – charred doughy crust beauties oozing with cheese and flavour
A Calabrese with spicy salami and mushroom, a Peperoni with fennel salami, a 'Holy Toffoli' which had garlic, fresh herbs, cherry vine tomatoes and smoked mozzarella and my own pick from a great bunch: a Pancetta pizza with gorgonzola, mascarpone, mozzarella, rosemary, mushrooms, pancetta (obvs) and crush black pepper.
The pizzas are all roughly around €16-€18 and are seriously hearty. Quality ingredients stand out and we all inhaled the pies, getting defeated about halfway through which happily meant pizza leftovers for lunch the following day. It's worth bearing in mind that it's literally just one guy cooking back there, so don't expect to come into Bottega Toffoli for a quick meal.
You'll be waiting a little while for your pizzas to arrive but they're worth it. Treat the night as an excuse to have a proper catch up and appreciate the chance to just slow down and enjoy the relaxed pace.
What's the damage?
A dessert special of a rhubarb crumble didn't immediately jump out at me, but when Elaine mentioned it was homemade I knew I just had to have it. One member of the group jokingly said my dessert looked like roast ham but I barely took notice as I dug into this perfectly baked dessert.
When something tastes this simple, this comforting, you don't care what it looks like.
The bill for four including drinks came to €138.50, not too bad considering all four of us had lunch sorted the next day and skipped spending a tenner each on one G&T in the pub, something that surely would have happened had we gone somewhere else for a fast meal.
It doesn't matter if Toffoli isn't a secret anymore, you'll feel like you've just discovered something really special.