The real deal in Italian dining
CAMPO DE' FIORI DISHES UP AN AUTHENTIC TASTE OF ITALY
Bray, jolly and a bit hurdy-gurdy, seems much more a part of Dublin than its po-faced sibling Greystones. The former still exudes a 1960s kind of vibe and you could envisage it as a backdrop for a Dennis Potter film.
The night we were there Bray's raffish charm was overt, music blaring, crowds walking the promenade, a big wheel lifting giggling teenagers up into the sky and, surmounting the whole period panoply, a dramatic sunset.
Sibella and I had made the Dart trip for the purpose of dining in a restaurant of which I'd heard much, but in which I'd never eaten; an Italian called Campo de' Fiori owning a reputation for authenticity.
Having visited that country many times I have my own ideas as to what authenticity means in an Italian context. It involves a regard for the raw materials bordering on excessive; a burgeoning of flavour; and a bonhomous (there must be an Italian word for it) atmosphere.
From the minute we walked in, Campo de' Fiori set out to deliver these in spades and largely succeeded. The major domo made a pretty good fist of pretending to know me. We were shown to an average sort of table as if it were the best seat in the house.
On the way back to his desk our man stooped to tickle a baby under the chin then engaged in animated discussion with the father. All the while he directed waiters, pointing and waving. Here was a man at the very top of his game.
On a Wednesday night, Campo de' Fiori was pure people. Recession? What recession? We began by ordering wine, a Greco de Tufo from Campania. This white grape I regard as one of Italy's finest and the example brought to table, clean and refreshing, in no way disappointed as an aperitivo. It proved a good partner for my salccice al sugo, chunky garlic and wine-laden sausages in a rich, robust tomato sauce and for Sibs' bruschetta di campo, a smart take in which the excellent toasted bread, the tomatoes, garlic and herbs were kept separate and the extra virgin olive oil was already at table. This allowed you to have a play at making your own bespoke bruschetta. Alas the tomatoes, a tad lacking in flavour, detracted from the excellence of the idea.
I looked in vain on the menu for some hearty Tuscan influenced casserole. The carte seemed mainly to consist of fish and shellfish plus steaks, with the famed bistecca fiorentina featuring prominently.
I opted for lobster, the Lamborghini item on the menu at a whopping €34 (less the recent VAT reduction which Campo de' Fiori passes on to the customer). It was promised with 'masses of mussels, prawns and clams', a promise it didn't quite deliver as there were, in my trawl, only three clams -- maybe this is of a 'lucky dip' nature and I was just unlucky, some other diner getting his share and mine.
The lobster was one of the round-nosed rascals, one huge claw, one tiny. The meat, though there wasn't a humongous amount, was sweet and tender, perfectly cooked. Sibella did better for a tenner less. Her half lobster, with an outsize claw came on a bed of good spaghetti with a rich sauce and that's what I'll be ordering next time.
The restaurant supplied a pair of those naff little cracking tools. I pined for a hammer and a Mole wrench; Sibs more sensibly asked the waiter to segregate the meat and the bone which he did with commendable alacrity. At some point the wine must have run out so we ordered another white, a peachy Pecorino (yes, it's a wine too). It proved as enjoyable as the Greco, in a different style.
For dessert, we shared the panna cotta of the day, a coconut one, well made and tasty, though the coconut's texture grated on me somewhat (absolutely no pun intended) and finished with a remarkably good and very authentic espresso. We'd disposed of €127.60, ex-service. More frugal imbibing would have kept the spend just under the ton. Campo de' Fiori has something rather good going for it, which Bray's locals and fellow Dartliners have clearly taken onboard.
We both loved the food and the ambience, with a special mention for the major domo, who was still dispensing smiles and handshakes to incomers as we left.