The first place that springs to mind when you contemplate where to indulge in truly authentic Italian cuisine in Ireland? Surely not in the wilds of Kerry, right? You would be forgiven for overlooking the possibility of a tiny town, best known for an annual fair of which a goat is the star, being the go-to destination delights from the terra madre. The Michelin inspectors however, were not deterred by the detour from the usual haunts, awarding Giovannelli in Killorglin a Bib Gourmand award in 2014, only the second Kerry eatery to gain this distinction.
Chef Daniele Giovannelli, hailing from La Brianza, just outside Milan, moved here 15 years ago and since managed to win the hearts of the town with his cosy little gem of a restaurant which opened in 2008. Having only ever heard wonderful things, from locals and tourists alike, about this little taste of Italy, I felt compelled to see if I would be similarly enamoured with Giovannelli’s charms.
Twenty minutes from Killarney, we took to the winding Ring of Kerry road to Killorglin and were welcomed warmly to a dimly lit dining room with just a handful of tables. A mountain of corks immediately caught my eye, telling me that many an enjoyable evening had been had in this candlelit, intimate space. Steps lead to the kitchen which doubles as a deli, with whole Proscuitto di San Daniele del Fruili legs – Parma ham’s older, sweeter cousin – and shelves of iconic blue De Cecce boxes. Going by this alone, the tone was set for a meal composed of expertly sourced ingredients, the hallmark of Italian cuisine. Appetites whetted, we ordered off the blackboard menu and awaited our Italian feast.
The second my dining companion’s starter of Gnocchi, Gorgonzola and Spinach hit the table the seductive scent of Gorgonzola filled the air and for the first time in my life, I had dish envy of the Italian classic dumpling. On sampling a bite, I can confirm that these were pillows of pleasure, flawlessly cooked, which is often not the case with gnocchi – usually boiled to bullet consistency in my experience. Ensconced in a silky blanket of richness, this was a blue cheese lover’s dream dish, with the last few drops of unctuously creamy Gorgonzola dolce liquor scooped up happily with freshly baked ciabatta.
On my side of the table, a lighter option beckoned and my inner oyster fiend made my starter choice a simple one. I couldn’t resist sampling Half a Dozen Wild Oysters sourced locally in Fenit Harbour, just a stone’s throw away. Fenit oysters are the native European flat variety, a rare treat and a true taste of the meroir, served here au naturel with a side of Tabasco. The lack of fussy adornment let the delicate minerality of this variety shine, six succulent and satisfying mouthfuls thoroughly enjoyed. I was delighted to see Kerry produce championed here, simply shucked and presented – the Italians religiously employ the finest raw materials with the gentlest of touches.
Both the starter and main course offering included dishes which would qualify as Primi course in Italy, such as Beef Ravioli with Butter and Sage and Tagliatelle with Cherry Tomatoes, all of which are crafted with pasta handmade in Giovannelli. We chose to sample delights of the land and sea more like a traditional Secondi course, usually offered with little adornment with resolute focus on expertly cooked meat or fish.
When in Kerry, lamb is a natural choice and Giovannelli’s is sourced locally from Cahillane’s Butchers, having roamed the hills of neighbouring Glencar. Rack of Kerry Lamb was delicately French trimmed but brought back to Italy with a delicious creamy Marsala-spiked sauce and crisp polenta disk. While I prefer when the crisp lamb fat coating is left on, my dinner guest disagrees so was perfectly pleased with the juicy rack, cooked rare as requested, sans fat. Rosemary roasted baby potatoes made delicious dunking devices for the extra Marsala sauce on the side, and this plate returned to the kitchen clean.
Sipping on a glass of Sardinian Vermentino, we noted the vast variety of carefully chosen Italian wines spread across the regions and were both unsurprised to learn that Daniele is himself a trained Sommelier. Vermentino is traditionally paired with the bounty of seafood found on Sardinian shores but on this occasion it made a delightful accompaniment to Black Sole alla Mugnaia.
Italy’s answer to Sole Meuniere, this dish of floured sole, cooked in butter, lemon and herbs was traditionally prepared by miller’s wives, a classic to which justice is not always done. Employing sage in the place of parsley for a more authentic Italian feel, Giovannelli’s version, cooked whole on the bone, felt like a real treat. Black Sole, commonly known as Dover Sole, is a showcase dish when served whole and was masterfully cooked in this instance. The sole was meltingly buttery in texture, swimming in well-judged lemon-spiked browned butter which was perfectly piquant. This dish was simple pleasure on a plate.
A final flourish to round out an Italian evening had to be Tiramisu, which arrived layered in an individual Kilner jar. As a coffee addict, I was nearly swayed by Affogato, as there’s nothing worse than insipid, barely coffee-scented Tiramisu. I needn’t have hesitated as this example was deep, dark and singing with espresso as the savoiardi layers melted into the rich mascarpone filling. We both lamented not having room to sample the cheeseboard, which featured more tempting Gorgonzola dolce, St. Tola Ash goat’s cheese and Cooleney Darú – three favourites taunting me from the neighbouring table!
Daniele is both a chef and a host, going from table to table, offering advice on cooking Italian delicacies at home and engaging with guests like he has known them for years – in between serving truly sumptuous simple dishes. Each and every one is composed of incredible ingredients which he takes huge pride in, so much so that all aromatic herbs, garlic, shallots and Swiss chard he uses are grown in his own garden. As the road beckoned, we settled our bill, which came to €105 for two courses each, a shared dessert and 2 glasses of wine.
I left feeling Giovannelli’s unlikely location on the crest of a hill facing the town square, which houses a goat for a weekend in August, made sense at last. For one night, I was transported back to an evening spent in a restaurant in Parma, on a goat grazed hillside, welcomed like guests in the home of our Italian hosts who showered us with warmth and rustic, authentic cuisine. Very few restaurants outside of Italy can recreate that authentic Italian ambience, and Giovannelli has done just that.
Remembering the wise words of Marco Pierre White, I think to myself that he was onto something dismissing over-elaborate food, which he derides as ‘fluffy’. Giovannelli’s food is a fluff-free zone, focused entirely on the kind of simple culinary pleasures you would enjoy in Emilia-Romagna – executed flawlessly. Go to Giovannelli for meticulously sourced ingredients, treated with respect in the hands of a passionate chef delivering dishes a damn sight more genuinely satisfying than all the molecular foams this side of Firenze.
Lower Bridge St,
T: 087 123 1353
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.