Pasta for me always calls to mind the phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
Pasta in the hands of an Irish person is not a delicate purveyor of flavour, with creamy sauces and speckles of truffle clung to delicate silky strands of Italian alchemy.
We mangle it at every hands turn with stiff acidic tomato sauces and portions more appropriate to SE7EN than the dinner table of civilised people. I challenge any Irish person to cook the right amount of pasta. It’s never been done. End of.
The night before I visited the latest and much lauded addition to neighbourhood eateries in Dublin 7, I made a simple puttanesca at home. I boiled the water and added what I judged to be a reasonable amount of spaghetti, then panicked and added the rest of the packet.
Later when I was able to move again, I reflected on the pasta folly and vowed that next time it would be different. It never is.
Grano is a sliver of a dining room set in an unassuming row on Stoneybatter’s Manor Street.
Stoneybatter has rapidly become the envy of every coffee-drinking, raw-chocolate-munching, in-denial-about-being-a-hipster Dubliner I know – myself included.
The area, up-and-coming for many years now, has neatly nailed that difficult thing of being a cozy village, bang in the city centre.
Ostensibly an easy neighbourhood vibe, Grano’s reputation has made it a destination eatery practically overnight.
So many people, in fact, had told me to go there in vaguely hectoring tones, that I was starting to feel like Grano was some overdue homework.
“Alright, alright, I’ll go to Grano,” I snarled at the last recommendation. The person was taken aback by this wildly disproportionate response but by then I was suffering from a cumulative irritation.
The simple dining room is tight. I’ll be honest, my carb-loving thighs barely fit under the table, but the kitchen space is even tighter. Three industrious-looking chefs worked from a tiny open kitchen at the back.
In terms of output, this would be impressive for most basic cafés, never mind a kitchen that rolls its own homemade pasta and is cooking to an exceptionally high level as I’d discover.
The kitchen is also admirably quiet. I spent many years working in small, open kitchens and among my repertoire of moods was ‘oven-door-kicking’, ‘pot-slamming’ and garden variety ‘swearing-under-my-breath’.
Our table was one row from the pass and the atmosphere was one of calm, cheery industry. They’re either medicating with kitchen wine or that is one happy kitchen. And as we all know a happy kitchen makes good food.
As I wedged myself into position, I took in the clean, unfussy space. Pale wood tables and chairs are arranged practically toe to toe in a space scarcely larger than the upper deck of a bus – on the way in, I had accidentally kicked a baby. (This is pretty on-brand for me.)
It was sleeping in a car seat on the floor beside its parents who were the epitome of Stoneybatter cool. “He’s one of five,” they laughed nudging the unperturbed week-old infant further under the table and returning to their meal.
The encounter summed up everything Grano is: relaxed, unpretentious and warm. And, as I am most definitely not these things, I found myself unreasonably bitter towards this couple who could afford to raise five kids in Stoneybatter and now have this fantastic Italian eatery to repair to for a mid-week bite.
The menu is divided into nibbles for sharing, starters, pasta plates and main courses.
From the nibbles, among the marinated olives and black pig lardo, I spied an intriguing description but resisted an off-colour joke to my companion who, to date, has heard more than she ever wanted to know about my husband.
The Scaldanduja spreadable sausage with toasted crostini came in a tiny ceramic dish heated by a candle underneath and an accompanying bag of crispy bread. The sausage was delicious but the overall effect was too dry for me.
I debated asking for olive oil but I’d already been a pain in the ass about ordering additional half portions of pasta for mains and had kicked the aforementioned baby on the way in so I kept quiet.
Starters ranged from the heavy hitters – think meatballs and smoked ricotta – to the simple and refined – Italian spelt bread with tomatoes, oregano and garlic.
The sense I get is that Grano are investing in their produce.
There is a confidence in these dishes – nothing too try-hard going on, but each plate is executed exceptionally well.
Our choices were the burrata which came with cured Capocollo ham, stuffed dried figs and taralli – an Italian cracker. Again here, quality of the produce shined with little adornment to crowd the flavours.
Our other choice was the baked mackerel with was served sandwiched around a herbed potato cake. Red pepper cream and tender stem broccoli lightened this plate rendering the overall effect surprisingly delicate.
The Italians are just good at carbs, man. In pasty, freckly, Irish hands (such as my own) that dish could have been a potato-punch to the gut.
Choosing the mains was agonising, the menu is compact – always a good sign – but each dish promised inventiveness. The house-made orecchiette is made with ‘burnt grain flour’, the fileja pasta with sword fish intrigued as did the mezzamaniche – sort of squat tubes of pasta – served with cured pig jowls.
The culinary influences are Calabrian which is essentially the toe of the boot and the area is mad for meat. Curing and sausage-making are big, as is fish and of course, pasta which the waiter tells us is made in-house often on the long wooden counter just in front of the kitchen.
Come at the right time and you might even catch owner, Roberto’s mother rowing in on pasta-duties while his brother Allesandro mans the pass.
Finally we settled on three plates of pasta, though I was struggling with menu-regret over not trying the Bombette di Martina Franca – pork neck, artisanal pancetta rolled and smoked with caclocavallo cheese and winter greens. Sigh.
Our dishes arrived and my food fomo evaporated. My companion’s simple pasta and tomato sauce thrilled in a way you simply could not have anticipated.
“Oh they’re good,” I muttered on tasting the smooth sauce that while simple had real body. “They’re very good.”
Doctrine states that a good tomato sauce, made well should need no other adornment. And this one is nailing it.
I gather they’re taking no risks and bringing their own tomatoes in from Italy currently, though with summer will come a re-jig in terms of menu and suppliers.
I opted for the wild boar tortellini with tomato sauce. I’m not one for falling over myself to horse into a bit of game but it is a good measure of a kitchen. The dish is divine. The tortellini is tender, the sauce is silky and the meat is meltingly tender. We’re told they often braise a little pork with it to assuage the dryness that can come with lean cuts.
Our third plate is the gnocchi in creamy parmesan sauce and dusted with truffle which we happily share though as each little dumpling of deliciousness is scoffed and the portion dwindles we become noticeably less polite.
Desserts are an area of specialty for me. If there’s a chocolate brownie on there. I am out. It’s just not a dessert, it has no goddamn business being on a dessert menu. Then I spotted a chocolate biscuit cake on there, about which I hold similar views and felt my heart sink. Was this where Grano was going to let me down?
Friends, I don’t know what the hell is going on with that chocolate biscuit cake but it was stunning.
Nutty and rich and cut with the perfect foil, a blood orange syrup.
The tiramisu was equally good. I have long-held derision for the tiramisu, mainly because it’s being roundly messed with. I’m all for a riff on an old favourite, but often these stiff, highfalutin imposters bear little resemblance to the Italian classic.
Grano’s tiramisu was just gorgeable, a wedge of boozy, creamy decadence, like an off-duty Kate Moss – insouciant, undone and not a bit bothered.
Here are some things Grano are doing well: portions are spot on. Portions are a bugbear for me, I am greedy for sure but I find a huge plate of food eminently repelling. Grano know about portions.
They also operate with a supreme professionalism; our waiter was clearly knowledgeable about process and provenance regarding the food and the wines. When we learned he was just a few weeks in the job, it was doubly impressive.
The service was attentive but nicely hands-off, I don’t like to be overly minded, we’re all adults here – bar the baby obvs. The food was confident, self-assured and completely delicious. Grano is another thing to hate or love about Stoneybatter, depending on your postcode of course.
What’s the damage?