Born and bred Dubliner Eileen Dunne met Italian Stefan Crescenzi in the early 90s, married, moved to Dublin from Rome in 1995, and started stocking and selling fine Italian produce and wine from a tiny shop in Sutton, north of the city. In the late 90s, the husband and wife team opened up their city centre base and – with a few hiccups here and there, primarily when they had to pull tight the purse strings – haven’t really looked back.
Certainly, when we paid a much-postponed visit there a few weeks ago, we were left wondering if the recession - indeed, any recession - had ever taken place. From the time we arrived (8pm) to being politely turfed out (approaching midnight), the joint, as they say, was jumping. And yet it jumps in the way restaurants should, for this was a loud room that made all of the right noises. Some restaurants are there for certain things, the most obvious being great food and calm surroundings. Some restaurants are so quiet you can hear wines glugging into glasses. Some restaurants are so serene you can just about hear people whispering what suspiciously sounds like a melange of sweet nothings and scurrilous gossip.
Not so Dunne & Crescenzi of an evening, weekday or weekend – this room emits the brilliant noise of conversation, the ardent business of yakking to your heart’s content without fear of being overheard by even your closest neighbour. And the room has the added benefit of being dark-toned, which adds to the muted tumult and the air of secrets being told in confidence. Factor in the walls (oh, if only they could talk!), which are lined with bottles of regional wine and studded with all manner of pastas, and you have a space that in the wrong hands would be simply an approximation of authenticity.
And here is the key to Dunne & Crescenzi’s justifiable success: it is as authentic an Italian eating/drinking experience as you can possibly imagine, from the bustling staff with faltering English to the food, which exudes flavours that are equal parts blatantly rustic and real (the food is sourced, as it has been from the beginning, from modest Italian producers, although some meats are supplied by Gilligan’s of Roscommon, and fish is provided by Wrights and Doran’s of Howth).
Preceded by the arrival of a jug of water and a bottle of aromatic, balanced wine (Montefalco Rosso, 2009, Antonelli San Marco, chosen from a truly staggering, extensive list), starters land in casual but efficient fashion. (The menu, by the way, is upfront about its unsuitability for people with severe allergens.) The plate of Delizia dell’orto (one of a number of vegetarian options) houses a selection of chargrilled aubergines, courgettes, peppers and mushrooms with olives, Tuscan-style beans and garlic vine-ripened tomatoes. In a word from the chauffeur? “Divine.” My own starter, Salmone affumicato (Wrights artisan smoked Irish salmon with goats’ cheese and Sicilian capers), is almost the size of a main. The salmon is wonderfully pungent, the capers are taste bombs, and the goats’ cheese portion is beyond sizeable.
More water, more wine, conversation that is even more gossipy. Will the good times never end? Don’t think so - mains arrive next. One is from the Specials board - scialatielli with prawns and pesto. A type of long spaghetti originating from the Amalfi coast, the slip-sliding scialatielli hosts perfectly cooked prawns, with the pesto adding as much bite as you can withstand. My main is Salamini al Barolo (imported exclusively by Dunne & Crescenzi from Salumificio Villani), and is paired with a selection of bracing olives, light salad and crunchy breads. We finish with a shared dessert – warm chocolate brownie, with vanilla ice cream – which might seem unadventurous but which provides the necessary calming down of a palate having too much fun for its own good.
Of course, by this time of the night we’re stragglers. Only a few tables have people sitting at them (including a very well known 50-something rock star entertaining a lady somewhat younger than himself – see what I mean about this place being perfect for discretion?) but we’re allowed to dawdle for as long as it takes. Dunne & Crescenzi? Done and dusted, more like.
Dunne & Crescenzi, 14-16 Frederick Street South, Dublin 2, dunneandcrescenzi.com, 01-6759892
THE TAB: Dinner for two, with wine, came to €100.50, tip extra.
HOW TO: Open seven days. Mon-Sat, 7.30am-11pm; Sun, 9am-10pm.
(This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner, August 1st, 2014.)