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Saturday 16 December 2017

A Pizza Paradise

It's not just the Michelin-starred places that can provide the all-round perfect dining experience, says Ernie Whalley after a meal at Manifesto

Sibs and i started out wanting some no-fuss eating. I'd had a fairly heavy week on the 'geezers who lunch' circuit.

Herself had decided that "a plate of plain is your only woman". Accordingly, I rang a friend who, broadly speaking, is in the same line of work. We compared notes and I ended up with a shortlist of three or four places I'd not eaten in before and worked out a driving route between them so, should we give a place the thumbs down on the doorstep, we could move onto the next. The first one was bereft of heating. We motored on up Rathmines Road and found Manifesto.

It's a long, thin room, unadorned except for a monster wood-fired pizza oven located just inside the front door. Tending the fire, deftly wielding the large pizza paddle, a chef was going about his business of feeding a full house. There must be another chef, too, at the back of the house. Pizza was coming one way, pasta the other.

The front of house staff consisted of two people: a guy and a girl, both Italian. They gave us a warm welcome and, though we hadn't booked, managed to find us a table. The waitress brought bread which she described as "our focaccia", flatter than most of the focaccia you find in restaurants here, maybe more akin to Florentine sciaciata. It was very, very good. Engaging her in conversation, I asked: "Can you freeze pizza dough?" (I have a vested interest here having, only that day, overseen the completion of my own pizza oven). My enquiry was misinterpreted as implying that the restaurant was using frozen bread. "No, we make all our own, fresh," she said and brought us a plateful of different bread to hammer home the point.

I should, of course, have ordered a pizza; luckily Sibs did. My own intentions to eat plain and simple vanished as soon as I saw the menu. The presence of Prosciutto D'Anatra E Pure Di Mele, described as "cured in-house breast of duck served with seasonal salad and apple compote" put paid to that. It was superb, the smokus-pocus not overdone and the crisp apple slices and fresh radicchio making for textural contrast with the sweet compote. Sibs, true to her vow, eschewed a starter but did pinch some of mine.

Her pizza was of the Neapolitan kind, with a thin, crispy base and of good size. The topping was generous and included tomato, aubergines, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese and was liberally dressed with balls of fresh buffalo mozzarella. Named 'Mamy', apparently it gained the World's Best Pizza award back in 2006. To paraphrase Al Jolson: "I'd walk a million miles for one of your pizzas Mamy." Well maybe not that far but on the evidence of the slice I scammed I'd certainly pass the other dozen or so pizza shacks between my house and Manifesto to eat this again.

Meanwhile, I was firmly ensconced on the deluxe side of the menu. As much as the head said "Ravioli Vesuvio" -- homemade ravioli with spinach ricotta cheese on a sun-dried tomato sauce sprinkled with fresh rocket salad -- the heart dictated the half lobster in shell with spaghetti and a cherry tomato sauce. The spaghetti was homemade and hand-cut with a chitarra, a multi-strung implement like a culinary version of a zither or Celtic harp. The lobster was beautifully cooked, the pasta an object lesson and the flavours of the sauce sang long and loud. I was also intrigued by a reference on the menu to "paccheri di Gragnano", a tube pasta hailing from a small town between Naples and Sorrento that I'd visited.

Gragnano used to be 'Pasta Central', a place where the town planners had even orientated the main street so as to get the maximum hours of sunshine for drying the fresh pasta hung over the balconies. This particular pasta featured on the menu as "the notorious pasta of Gragnano".

The wine list was properly 90% Italian, most of it reasonably priced. We selected a Primitivo di Manduria, soft enough not to clang off the tomatoes or take out the lobster, yet with enough poke to cope with the abundant and diverse flavours. Unlike many Italian oufits, Manifesto has good glassware. We shared dessert, a semifreddo with berries and a pistachio sauce, which came very prettily arranged. I took a grappa with my average-to-good espresso.

The guy who greeted us turned out to be the co-proprietor, his oppo being the pizza chef. He described the restaurant in charming fashion as "the dream of two good friends". I hope the dream doesn't fade. I'd like to think Manifesto will be here for a long time.

In more than two years I've only ever given one five-star rating -- to a Michelin-starred place at the top of its form. Yet there's no reason why more basic places, when they pull out all the stops, shouldn't get the same accolade. So five stars it is.

Verdict: Proper Italian food, decent ingredients sympathetically treated. Breathes warmth and civility.

Rating: * * * * *

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