Review: Ristorante Riniccini, Kilkenny

2nd May 2014
Pól Ó Conghaile

Kilkenny does a heck of a line in time travel.

Step into St. Canice’s Cathedral, Rothe House or Kilkenny Castle and you’re transported to medieval times. Kyteler’s – once owned by the notorious witch, Dame Alice Kyteler – is one of the oldest inns in Ireland. The Hole in the Wall treats visitors to a magical mash-up of Tudor house and wine bar.

In Rinuccini’s, it’s 1989. That’s the year the Cavaliere family from Lazio first opened their polished Italian restaurant – and stepping into its atmospheric clutch of rooms today, it feels like you’re rewinding a quarter of a century to join them.

The first room is a luxurious, low-ceilinged space furnished with wine racks, heart-shaped anthuriums, sober artworks and waiters in tuxedos (there are more modern rooms deeper into the building, but with similar ambiance).

As we arrive, our coats are taken. Wine is decanted at a neighbouring table. Earlier on, I told my daughter we were going for Italian. “Will there be pizza?” she wondered. There wouldn’t, I informed her. It’s not that kind of place.

Rinuccini’s, as you may gather, is very much a ristorante – as opposed to a more casual trattoria. You won’t find gaudy lighting, gingham tablecloths and children wearing their spaghetti here. What you will find is serious service, moody lighting, and customers dressing up for what feels like an occasion as much as a meal.

The menu is old-school too – offering an extensive selection of classic Italian cuisine with ingredients gathered from Knockdrinagh to Kilmore Quay. Dishes are listed in Italian with English descriptions, ranging from familiar staples like Lasagne el Forno, mixed Crostini and tiramisu to house specialties such as the Silver Hill duckling baked in orange juice and Aurum liquor sauce (‘Anatra al Sapore d’Arancia’).

There’s a cheesecake flavoured with Limoncello, too.

Our starters are disappointing. My mussels, tossed on the pan in classic Italian fashion with garlic, white wine, chopped tomato and fresh chilli, are unusually difficult to extract from the shells. They fall apart continuously and frustratingly, and they taste squishy and dull, as if they’ve failed to fully absorb the flavours.

A creamy asparagus soup is thick and tasty, but aubergines rolled with ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes (‘Involtini di Melanzane’) arrive lukewarm, despite the menu’s description of a starter “served hot”. The aubergine itself is nicely tangy, however, with a good sprinkle of parmesan and a sweet tomato sauce.

Thankfully, the mains take it all up a level. I go for the catch of the day – a fillet of cod served in a creamy mustard sauce. It’s a flavoursome fillet, with crispy skin giving way to and juicy flesh, a scattering of leaves brings bite and freshness, and there are tasty skillets of garlic & rosemary roasts and salty cabbage on the side.

The spaghetti dish (‘Polpettine con Spaghettini’) is a light, rustic mix of baby meatballs, tomato sauce with a whiff of basil, and perfectly cooked pasta. The lasagne is gooey and comforting, and a Wexford lamb shank (‘Agnello Abruzzese’) baked in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and served on a bed of truffle risotto, is an agreeably fatty cut, with creamy rice completing a big, filling and indulgent dish.

Lots of diners rave about Rinuccini’s, but I find it a little harder to relax.

Our table is small, for example, tightly hemmed in beside our neighbours. The menus are densely laid out. The ambiance alternates between sumptuous and stuffy – at times elegantly nostalgic, at others a little too fusty and po-faced. One moment, the place feels wonderfully warm. The next, it’s slightly intimidating.

I can’t quite figure it out… maybe I’d be better off just wallowing in it. The service is as polished as the prim tuxedos, after all, fellow diners seem happy, and the Cavaliere family is obviously doing a lot right to be successful for 25 years.

Desserts include three bowls of ice-cream and a hunk of Cheesecake Al Limoncello, which turns out to be both luxuriously smooth, and sweetly airy enough to be pecked away at till it disappears. There’s a quality selection of Italian wines too, with a short list by the glass in large (250m) or small (175) portions.

Ask nicely, and you could even travel in time to their cellar…

The tab:

Dinner for two adults and two kids came to €117.15, tip extra.

The details:

1 The Parade, Kilkenny; 056 776-1575; rinuccini.com.

This review originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.

Keywords: Rinuccini Review.