God-tier Carbonana, Roman-style pizza, and very special specials
What should we know about Bar Italia?
Bar Italia opened in 2000, and has always been known as a reliable Italian around town, somewhere to lay down the shopping bags and refuel with a plate of pasta and a glass of wine, but it wasn't setting food messaging groups alight with chatter.
This is a kitchen that must have seen many personnel changes over the years, but before Covid changed everything for all of us, owner David Izzo (formerly of the Dunne & Cresenzi group who also had a stake in the restaurant until a few years ago) convinced a childhood chef friend from Rome to move to Dublin and take over operations. He brought a predominantly Roman crew with him, and Bar Italia changed from a general Italian, to one focused on Roman cooking above all else, and we love a niche.
While the timing of Covid couldn't have been worse, they used the time to practice and perfect a new menu, and one of the biggest changes has been to their pizza, or as they're called in Rome, 'Pinsa'. They claim to be the first in Ireland to make a 72-hour fermented dough from a blend of wheat, soya, and rice flour, and the result is thin, light and perfectly chewy. Pasta is handmade too, and word started getting around that their Carbonara could rival any in the Centro Storico.
When we've talked to people about it post visit we often heard, "I wouldn't have thought of going there", so we're here to tell you why you should.
Where's good for a drink first?
The Clarence Hotel's recently opened cocktail bar The Curious Mister is just a four minute walk away if that's what you're after. For a pint we love J McNeill's on Capel Street (hopefully you'll stumble on a trad session), and for wine they do a decent by the glass list in Wallace's across the way.
(c) The Curious Mister
Where should we sit?
The dining room has had a big revamp over the past few years, and what was formerly a bit fusty and old-fashioned, is now all clean lines and contemporary design. Dark wood, yellow walls and antique chandeliers are out. Black walls, gold light fittings and tan banquettes are in. We'd rate this as one of the nicest dining rooms in the city right now, and we're using their pics instead of our covert ones, because it actually is this impressive in real life.
(c) Bar Italia
There are four counter seats up front if you're dining solo and don't want a table to yourself, otherwise we'd ask for a banquette. The views of Milennium Bridge and Temple Bar out of the large windows spanning one side of the room are quite lovely, but there are no seats to avoid.
(c) Bar Italia
There's also a lower level (the Graham Knuttel room) that can be booked for groups of up to 37. No surprise that the Irish artist's paintings cover the walls, and it's definitely got a cosy, hidden away vibe.
What did you eat?
We went once, were hit by a thunderbolt, and had to go back a second time before telling you about it. On the basis of two visits, we've come to the conclusion that you can't pick badly in here.
The daily specials are as integral to Bar Italia as the à la carte, with at least eight additional options (many pop up again and again). Each sounds better than the last so it's likely you'll just want to order from these, but we tried to do a bit of both, and here's a brief(ish) summary.
Starters mainly involve bruschetta and antipasti, or you can order a basket of bread and grissini and make the most of the top quality olive oil and balsamic on offer. Bruschetta with fresh Irish calamari was a piece of chargrilled La Levain sourdough, topped with tender pieces of squid in a tangy San Marzano tomato sauce, and if fresh fish ain't your dish you can choose from tomato and basil, burrata or proscuitto.
A special of fresh, wild Atlantic scallops came on mini pinsas with a puttanesca sauce on top and basil oil dotted around, and the flavour of the mini pizza, the scallop and the sauce were so individually striking, without any overtaking the other. If you see this, order it.
For antipasti you can have a whole, oozing, creamy burrata wrapped in 24-month cured parma ham (sourdough on the side), or an antipasti mixto with capocollo, truffle salami, culatello ham, caprese lollipos, house grilled veg, and more sourdough bread (a great order "for the table"). We wondered where they were going to get tomatoes with flavour in the middle of winter, but they're using a sun-blushed version which are low on water, big on taste.
Handmade pasta is one of the main reasons to come here, and if you order one thing, please make it the Carbonara. Does a better one exist in the country? We'll need convincing.
Despressingly staff told us that when diners order it they have to ask if they've had it before, and tee them up for the pepper, pecorino and guanciale explosion that's coming, as opposed to the sloppy, creamy, flavourless mound they might be used to. This is God tier food, and our Italian waitress told us that even in Rome, finding one this good can be tricky.
If you see a truffle special in Bar Italia, you should order that too, because they don't skimp on the truffle. We tried a special of egg fettucine with parmesan cream and freshly grated black truffle, and it was just as extra as the carbonara - this isn't somewhere to take anyone who's always counting calories.
On another visit we tried the strozzapreti with seafood (Roaring Water Bay mussels, tiger prawns, fresh squid, sea-bass ragout and Sicilian cherry tomatoes), and while the flavour of the sauce was everything you would want in a seafood pasta, we were disappointed to only find one prawn in the dish. Maybe an oversight. The rest was glisteningly fresh.
For pinsa there are eight options including all the usuals like 'Margherita', 'Marinara' and 'Norcina' with housemade pork sausage, but a special of 'Ariccia' with house-roasted porchetta, scazmorza cheese and cacio e pepe cream was jumping off the page shouting "pick me!" And oh were we glad we did.
It was a mountain of meat and cheese, ideal for sharing amongst a group - if eating alone you'll probably need to go straight to bed off the back of it - and the flavours were of the level that everyone just shuts up and says nothing while eating it, save for the occasional groan of pleasure.
Another dish that doesn't appear on the à la carte but regularly does on the specials, is their gigantic, flat bowl of risotto - heads turn when this is brought to table. When we visited it was Delica pumpkin cream, Gorgonzola fondue, culatello lardons (these should be more of a thing), and finished with truffle gouda. It could have been warmer, but Caligula would have approved.
Desserts are limited to a few options, and our top pick is the Limoncello baba, soaked to optimum levels in the Italian liquer, and filled with Limoncello cream and whipped cream, with a Marashino cherry on top. Stick a fork in us, we're done.
Panna cotta is very good too, and comes with a choice of a berry or coffee topping, and a chocolate cake with salted caramel inside and vanilla ice-cream on top is the chocolate lover's end to a meal, but it's heavy and we didn't find it too interesting. There's tiramisu too which we didn't try but would expect to be good based on everything else, and coffee is very good.
What about the drinks?
They know how to do aperitivo in here, and both a limoncello spritz and a basilico spritz (with housemade basil liquor) were as good as you'd find on any Italian terrace. The wine list is wide and deep, with all the big Italian hitters, and several having different vintage options. Bottles start at €25 but you can go as high as your wallet allows.
Despite the breadth of the bottle list we found the by the glass list dull on both occasions, with too many commercial brands, and several wines that weren't at their best. Service however was great, with staff bringing us tasters and even opening a different vintage of one wine in the hope that it would have a bit more life to it (it did).
On our second visit they had a 2009 Ciro Rosso from Librandi on as a pairing for the porchetta pizza for €12 a glass, which was delicious and a relative steal, so we think the wines on the specials menu are probably the way to go.
How was the service?
Very charming. Almost everyone who served us was Italian and delighted to talk about the dishes, the kitchen, and how they operate. Owner David works the room too, checking in on regulars and new faces, asking what people think of the food and stopping to chat with anyone wanting to know more about their pinsa/pasta/panzerotti. Staff went out of their way for us several times, and we saw them doing the same for other tables. You'll be well looked after here.
And the damage?
Our two meals were a mish mash of starters, mains and desserts, and we didn't get into the wine list properly, but we reckon you're looking at €65-€70 a head to go all in with three courses and a decent bottle of wine, but you can just stop in for a pizza and a glass to for around €30. It's not a cheap dining option, but it's somewhere you get what you pay for.
What's the verdict?
After visiting we were torn between wishing we'd gone sooner, and being happy we held back, because Bar Italia is probably the most exciting it's been right now. They don't need this write up, they're packed at lunch and dinner, and after visiting you'll see why.
26 lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1