FOOD AND WINE restaurant critic Aoife Carrigy headed to Sprezzatura, one of the city's newest spots, to experience their handmade pasta.
Does anyone else remember Gruel? There was a time in Dublin, before the recession birthed our casual eating boom, when quality cheap eats were hard to come by. Neighbouring the late, great Mermaid Restaurant on Dame Street, its sister café Gruel was an oasis of affordability, somewhere for simple food – fresh mackerel maybe, pan-fried like your mammy might make – at great prices, with a tumbler of quaffable wine if you fancied it. It was a canteen of an eatery, perfect for dining solo with a book as much as for meeting friends before a gig.
Today’s Dublin has no shortage of great cheap eats – from Korean-fried chicken to vegan vish’n’chips – but there seems to be a Gruel-shaped gap in the market for when you want a home-cooked dinner but, for whatever reason, neither you nor your mammy are at home, cooking.
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Opened in early October, the Italian-inspired Sprezzatura is no Gruel, but something about the generosity of its affordability and comfort factor reminds me of it, albeit if mammy was a mamma. Its speciality is keenly priced pasta dishes, hinging on fresh pasta made daily not on site but, as their website proudly proclaims, “in an old garage in D8” (sure where else?). On the early weeknight that we visited, their blackboard menu featured five choices plus a mystery sixth that had been erased. Another board offered a cute ‘pasta shape guide’ to help you tell your ribbons from your rigatoni. Prices started at €6.50 for said rigatoni (‘similar to penne, tube-shaped, short length’) with tomato basil sauce, and peaked at €9.50 for ribbons (‘long scalloped strands, excellent sauce grip’) with oxtail ragu, of which more anon.
A separate list features ‘plates’ (€3–€7) available both in the restaurant proper, to supplement the pasta, or with drinks in the right-hand side of this two-room space, where a central bar area is billed as ‘Aperitivo at Sprezzatura’. It might be fun to start there with a spritz and a bowl of smoked almonds (€3 for a generous portion) before moving next door for your dinner, though we had pre-booked online so were whisked straight to our table.
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The Main Event
The place was hopping, surprisingly so for a bank holiday Tuesday, which partly explains the scatty, frenetic service. Never mind that ‘Sprezzatura’ translates as ‘studied carelessness’ – this carelessness seemed more haphazard than affected, and hopefully once they find their feet and a decent team, they can get proper service systems in place.
We ordered a few bits from the ‘plates’ selection – including those smoked almonds and some Bread 41 potato focaccia (€3.50) that I suspect had been pre-sliced too early in the evening – plus a pair of pastas each. It all arrived speedily and simultaneously, bar the baby leaf salad with anchovy dressing (€3), which they were out of. We opted instead for the tomato carpaccio (€4), which was hardly seasonal, and not exactly fragrant with flavour, but featured pretty slices of heirloom varieties nonetheless.
Clean tasting, super fresh and doused in a simple dressing of lemony Wicklow Rapeseed Oil (they don’t import olive oil, in line with other sustainability efforts), the pollock crudo (€7) was a brave dish to offer. Besides that crudo translates as ‘raw’, most restaurateurs don’t have the courage to serve pollock at all, unless masquerading as battered cod in fish and chips. Sprezzatura join a growing band of sustainably-minded restaurants who are championing this plentiful local fish: Goldie in Cork work with local day boats with a ‘whole catch’ approach (ie. the chefs work with whatever the fishermen catch) and like to serve pollock cured with celeriac sauce and leek oil, or pan-fried and served with fennel braised in pollock bones. The only other place I know in Dublin where you might see it regularly listed is Niall Sabongi’s The Seafood Cafe, so it’s no surprise to see Sabongi’s wholesaler Sustainable Seafood Ireland is one of Sprezzatura’s suppliers. More of this please!
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Both of our pasta dishes hit the spot. I was tempted by several options – including ‘tyres’ pasta with spicy nduja and ricotta (€8.50) and ‘flowers’ pasta with morcilla (€8.50) – but it was one of those dark, damp evenings when oxtail ragu can’t be denied. I was vindicated with a rich, moreish mound of fall-apart meat atop those frilly ribbons. The meat had been cooked on the bone, and was served with it for a rustic effect. Proper rib-sticking fare and a good match for the 100 per cent semolina pasta, which has a heartier texture due to the high protein content of its durum wheat base. Some pasta recipes call for type-00 flour or all-purpose flour, or a mix of semolina with one of those two, either of which would give a lighter result.
My friend was craving the simplicity of cacio e pepe (€7.50), offered with fettuccine that day but which she requested with wider pappardelle instead. I felt this simpler style of saucing – just pecorino cheese and black pepper – would have benefited from a lighter style of pasta than Sprezzatura’s semolina-based take, but it was no less well executed.
Drinks And Dessert
The drinks on offer are consistent with their sustainability focus, with a solid selection of wine on tap from Wine Lab cutting down on waste (no bottles shipped in or recycled out). These start at €6.50 a glass and are also available in 500ml or 750ml carafes. I would have loved if the staff had a smidgeon of wine knowledge to complement the scant blackboard descriptions: our ‘orange wine’, at €9 a glass, had little evidence of the subtle tannic structure or colour that you’d expect from an orange wine (essentially a white wine that has benefitted from skin contact with the grapes, giving colour, structure and grip, depending on the duration of that skin contact).
When we queried whether we had received the right wine, it would have been a perfect time for our server to proffer some background info about it. Arguably we shouldn’t expect that level of service with a €6.50 main course, but I do think we could with a €9 glass of wine. Other drinks include their own Sprezzatura lager, brewed in Dundalk (€3.50 for 300ml) and King of Kefir soft drinks.
Neither dessert nor coffee was up and running yet, despite being flagged on the website under ‘this week’s menu’, but I like that they are thinking smart with their coffee plans, which are to feature an Irish coffee roaster of the month brewed in stove-top moka pots. Dessert sounds interesting, once available: think goats milk pudding with rosemary salt and popcorn.
There’s a whole lot to like about Sprezzatura, and I hope that as it settles in, its big ambitions will be realised. The original head chef Conor Roban (ex-Boojum via Noma) – who was flagged in their opening press release in early October – has already been replaced by Alex Braz (ex-Token and Forest Avenue). All these new restaurant openers make a challenging staff shortage even more acute, and it takes a strong team to deliver big dreams. But for now, their heart and those prices are in the right place, and this dream of an Italian canteen is worth punting a tenner max per main course.
The Bottom Line: We spent €66.50 before a tip for dinner for two including two glasses of wine each
Sprezzatura, 5/6 Camden Market, Grantham St, Saint Kevin's, Dublin 8, D08 FYK8
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.
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