Fifty years of serving top Italian Nicos nosh
Rome native Emilio Cirillo (63) has run Nicos for over three decades and attributes his success to his 'fresh not fancy' food, says Anna Coogan
'People don't do lunch any more, not like they did 10 years ago when you would have had bankers and politicians and the legal profession in, and all carrying on their business over a good lunch," says Emilio Cirillo, owner of Nicos Italian restaurant on Dame Street, which is celebrating 50 years in business.
It's lunchtime in the restaurant with its easily recognisable red façade, and which Emilio took over 36 years ago from its original owner Nico Ruggiero, who opened the restaurant in 1963 and ran it until 1977.
"I was a chef working in the Italian restaurant Bernardos in Lincoln Place when the opportunity arose to rent Nicos and I had youth and energy on my side," says Emilio, who looks younger than his 63 years. "At the time, there were four Italian restaurants, including Nicos and Bernardos, and also La Caverna and Quo Vadis."
We've come a long way from a Dublin with less than a handful of Italian restaurants, yet Emilio has come even further.
"I got the train to London when I was 19 because I had two sisters there already, and I had family to visit on weekends. I worked in hotels and learned to be a chef," he says.
He is originally from the Pomezia suburb in Rome, where his parents had an eatery specialising in home-cooked food. Maybe it's his Italian sense of style, but he is a stickler for keeping up appearances in Nicos.
"In Rome when you go to the barber, he has a white coat and a comb and scissors in his top pocket, and he is professional," Emilio says.
"It is the same for the waiters here, so it is right that they should wear waistcoats and ties and black trousers. Terrific food served by someone in scruffy jeans isn't the same experience," he says.
He turns over a plate to show its Royal Doulton stamp. "It costs us a fortune in plates but our longstanding customers expect certain standards. They like the linen tablecloths and they like that the red wine is served in an actual red wine glass.
"We are an Italian restaurant which doesn't serve pizza because two people can eat pizza for €20 and leave quickly and they aren't looking for a linen tablecloth," he says.
Which brings us to the menu at Nicos, and today includes such old-fashioned, or some might say nostalgic, dishes as Parma ham and melon, prawn cocktail, fresh scampi and prawns in garlic and white wine.
"We have changed the menu very little in 36 years and that is because I believe what people want is good food on their plate. They don't want fancy or flash dishes but want fresh ingredients cooked well," Emilio says.
He must be doing something right, as Nicos has withstood the recession, and if lunchtimes are slower these days, evenings can still see a good crowd in the restaurant.
"I think the mistake some chefs make when they open restaurants is to think that the more seats they have, the better. We have 50 seats, but some restaurants have 100 or 120 seats and that is a big fall to take when business isn't good," he says of one of the reasons why Nicos is still standing half a century later.
There are seven members of staff, including Emilio, and which is otherwise made up of three chefs and three waiting staff. The waiters all speak Italian, which adds an authentic feel to the dining experience.
So what brought Emilio to Dublin in the first place? "I was working in The President Hotel in Holborn in London and so was my wife Angela. We began dating and around a year later we decided to move to Dublin," he says.
Angela Griffin from Roscommon, who has been married to Emilio for the past 37 years – the couple live in Straffan – later left the hotel business and qualified as a barrister and is now retired.
Ten years ago, the couple bought the building that houses Nicos (which dates back to around 1700) from the company that runs Temple Bar, and Angela has overseen its renovation and maintenance.
"Upstairs the building was in bits when I first took over the restaurant as it had been used as artists' studios, so people were concerned with other things – not that it was falling to pieces," Emilio says.
The interior of Nicos underwent an art-deco-influenced facelift three years ago, and now there are frosted windows and velvet chairs, and at least a dozen prints featuring images of Rome's stunning architecture, should Emilio ever begin to feel homesick.
"I go back to Rome for a few days every few months to catch up with my family," he says.
"I am one of seven children and I think it is important to mind your family. I think the Italians and the Irish share this feeling in life, and know that if you do not have family then you have nothing in life," he says.
Compared with some Dublin chefs and restaurant owners, Emilio is a fairly low-key figure.
"Work hard and serve good food, that has always been my motto," he says. "I have never cared that nobody recognises me.
"Well, except my customers – I like that they know me," Emilio says.