53 Dame Street
Irish Daily Mail
24 September 2016
There’s a comforting familiarity about Nico’s for someone like me who, as a child and as a teenager, was brought to places like the old Quo Vadis on South Andrew Street, Bernardo’s on Lincoln Place and the original Unicorn when it was on Merrion Row.
It reminds me of indulgent adults and of a time in my life when flaming sambucas were still exciting and exotic, of a much smaller Dublin, of when avocado “pears” were still exotic and the closest most of us got to a curry was the reconstituted contents of a Vesta sachet.
It even reminds me of coming home from school, in the dark and wet, and finding that my mother had cooked spaghetti Bolognese with actual garlic (one clove, carefully administered) and olive oil from Goodall’s (which may not have been great but was a huge improvement on the stuff from the pharmacy).
It reminds me of my joy, aged about 14, when I discovered cassata ice cream and the fact that there was life beyond HB Neapolitan sandwiched between wafers.
Oh yes, Nico’s is a trip down memory lane, and although it dates from 1963, it was not a restaurant I visited in my youth. Even the rather tacky refurb from a few years back (a kind of faux art deco exercise) can’t disguise the fact that Nico’s is a blast from the past.
I’m pretty sure that the menu has not changed in twenty years, quite possibly in fifty. The reason is simple: this kind of very straightforward Italian food – very limited though it is in representing the vast culinary tradition of that large country – is what a lot of people want. And when we visited, on a Tuesday evening, there were plenty of apparently happy, even delighted customers. By and large, they were of a certain age, but there’s no harm in that.
I mean, we grown ups matter. And Nico’s certainly caters for people who are, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “of riper years”.
The problem with cooking the same stuff for years is that you can get a bit complacent and I think this may be the case in Nico’s kitchen. It was not wholly apparent at the starters stage but there was one fly in the ointment.
And it was a fly in the ointment that would have sent my old friend, the usually calm and seemingly imperturtable Paolo Tullio into a ferment of indignation. It concerned the spaghetti carbonara.
As Paolo used to declare, you make carbonara with crisped pancetta (ideally guancialle), eggs and grated Parmesan. Tossed together with hot pasta, the whole lets melts and emulsifies together and forms one of the great pasta sauces.
And as Paolo further declared, you do not add cream.
This is what Nico’s did. Regarding this as a mortal sin, as Paolo did and I do, is doubtless a matter of opinion, and in defence of Nico’s the pasta was good, properly al dente and the flavour was not bad. But it wasn’t carbonara as I understand it. Perhaps it was carbonara irlandese.
Crab claws were fine and quite meaty; they came with a kind of multipurpose sauce, rather beige, flecked with the green of parsley fragments, pleasantly if indefinably savoury.
It, or its first cousin, made a second appearance with the saltimbocca main course. Here it vanished, in terms of taste, as did the innocent pieces of veal, beneath the incredibly saline assault of the prosciutto.
Nico’s redeemed itself with a dish of scampi, proper Dublin Bay prawns, each one firm and perfectly cooked, having been lightly floured and brought á point, so to speak, on a hot pan. When the world is full of rubbery, tasteless, often environmentally disastrous prawns, it was so good to be reunited with the real thing, the king of the species. Even more, it was delightful to see these fabulous little creatures of the deep being cooked so simply.
A homemade mayonnaise as the basis of the pleasant chunky tartare sauce would have been a real bonus, and certainly what these crustaceans deserved.
The Dublin Italian restaurant tradition of serving exceptionally thin and crisp sauté potatoes is kept alive at Nico’s. Ours were exceptionally fine, on their way to being excellent game chips but stopping just in time. Had the saltimbocca been less like the Dead Sea, they would have been scoffed in jig time.
With mineral water and good wines, our bill breached the €120 mark.