TWO things told me that the man calling the shots in the kitchen at Da Piero meant business. The first was a pursuit of quality approaching the pathological. The second was a little cherry tomato. But wait a minute, we haven't even arrived yet.
Da Piero is in Irby, a fairly anonymous bit of the Peninsular, which you were once unlikely ever to find yourself in unless you lived there or had become hopelessly lost. Not unpleasant, from the little we saw, but you can't imagine, during discussions on how to spend the first of the Easter bank holidays, somebody suddenly exclaiming “I know, let's go to Irby!”
The broccoli was braised atop a bed of onions with olive oil and a vat of shiraz; basting, covering, repeating,
a few glugs at a time. There was morewine in the broccoli than in Mrs Grill
All that has changed with Da Piero. Now people go out of their way to reach this out of the way bit of Wirral to find out what the fuss (“Food that fills you with joy” - Good Food Guide) is about. Coach parties would probably be organised except there wouldn't be any point. Da Piero has only seven tables. The week we went they turned away 140 people.
Soon, it will knock through into next door, meaning it will only have to disappoint 120 of them.
It was not always thus. The people of Irby, by and large, had no idea what a prize they had in their midst until they read about it in the Wirral Globe. You couldn't really blame them; if I lived in Irby, the last restaurant I would expect to be serving some of the best Italian food in the land is the one round the corner.
The Great Leap Forward came as Piero and Dawn Di Bella reached perhaps their lowest ebb; the day they arrived home from the funeral of Piero's mother – his inspiration and his teacher – at a time when, after five years of business, the restaurant had still not made the breakthrough their commitment to excellence demanded.
Sitting on the doormat was a letter from the Which? Good Food Guide, which they assumed to be a circular. But no, it was to inform them that Da Piero had been judged Best New Entry in the 2010 guide. Hmm, best new entry in Wirral? Or was it Merseyside? Only when they called Which? to ask which, did it become clear that their tiny, modest restaurant in this tiny, modest backwater had been judged best new entry in the entire UK.
The rest is history. And her story. Dawn handles the front of house like she was born to it, while Piero makes magic in the kitchen, and the plaudits roll in, despite them doing nothing to publicise the place. They have too much soul to issue a press release.
Thus it was by chance we discovered that Piero had dispensed with his fish supplier. He tells you reluctantly, almost apologetically. He doesn't like to criticise but not as much as he doesn't like to compromise. “If it's not right,” he says, I can't cook with it.”
So now he personally sources pretty much everything that comes out of the sea and on to the griddle; swordfish from Sri Lanka, seabass from Cornwall, scallops from Orkney . . . it's a lot of parcels to wait in for.
We went on Good Friday, and I was bad; breaking, two days early, my Lenten promise to forsake the fruits of the cacao plant. It's not my fault; I was seduced by the Prince of Dark Chocolate, whose riches, taking the form of semifreddo al cioccolato, turned my head. The smooth bastard even had Mrs Grill joining in.
The restaurant exudes good taste, from the elegant font on the sign above the door, to the simple, uncluttered interior – white walls, a single picture; reflecting the chef's attitude to his craft. Despite being tiny, and full, we never had the impression that our neighbours were hemming us in, or listening in. They were generally too busy praising the food (“I never knew broccoli could taste this good”).
Having heard nothing but good of the place, I had so looked forward to our visit that as the time came to choose, anticipation turned to anxiety, a desperate desire to pick only those dishes that would afford maximum pleasure. I was gripped by indecision.
Caponata, a vegetable dish with fried aubergines, celery, pine nuts, olives and capers, from Piero's native Sicily, sounded good but was it really my tazza di te? Dawn suggested aubergine bake. But aubergine bake is just aubergine bake. Isn't it?
“A few weeks ago we had one of our regular customers in,” Dawn tells me, “a businessman with important clients from Italy. As they ordered, one of them said, 'I won't have the aubergine bake because nobody makes it like my mamma does'.”
But Dawn's faith in her husband's cooking is evidently unshakeable and the client was duly convinced. Who knows, perhaps a multi-million pound deal hung in the balance as the first forkful hovered before his lips. “It's a good job my mamma's not here,” he concluded, “because this is better than hers.”
Piero's aubergine bake (£8.90, main picture) bonds the warmhearted embrace of a mother's cooking with the refinements of the professionally trained chef. And the precision of the gemstone cutter, Piero's other trade, the one he practised when he and Dawn romanced in Rome. And a construction to bedazzle a master builder, the layers reflecting multi-layered tones on the tongue – mozarella, parmesan, aubergine that yields yet holds its shape, and a richly intense tomato sauce. So much more than the sum of its parts.
Crayfish tails dressed in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, lemon and spices served with rocket leaves (£7.90) was fresh, vibrant and joyous. Maybe the bread rolls were a little too much the sort you get part-baked in Costco; thpats of butter more suited to a purveyor of tea and scones than a restaurant with, so far, two mentions in the Michelin Guide. But they did the job and such a trifle could not be allowed to affect my final scoring, as you will note below.
Swordfish, which 48 hours earlier had been doing the backstroke in the Bay of Bengal, had a texture like impossibly tender pork loin, only with more flavour, but not the unwelcome tang that accompanies supermarket bought swordfish.
Exquisitely chargrilled, the fish retained all its moisture and sweet freshness, served with olive oil and fresh herbs prepared by Piero's young son, Alan, who shows every sign of taking the family business into the second half of the 21st century.
Add peppery rocket, fresh from the garden, and Fagioli del Purgatorio – purgatory beans – (£5.30), tender, white pulses imported directly from Umbria, dressed with olive oil, black pepper and parsley.
Oh, and a little cherry tomato. Tomatoes are a good barometer of a restaurant's worth: rubbish tomatoes, rubbish restaurant, generally speaking. This beauty was sweet natured and perfectly ripe, firm but not fair.
Veal ossobuco, (£17.50), an Italian classic, was made with free range rose veal slow-cooked with onion, carrots and celery. A less appreciative diner than Mrs G might have taken issue with a slab of fat to which the meat owed all of its tendersweet character. Alongside, excellent spinach, sautéed in garlic.
And after all the talk of the broccoli, how could we not? Forget what the books tell you, this was braised slowly atop a bed of onions with olive oil and a vat of shiraz; basting, covering, repeating, a few glugs at a time. There was more wine in the broccoli than in Mrs Grill.
Side dishes ain't cheap but when they are this good, you don't quibble.
And, in the end, that cold chocolate dessert and divine ice cream with Amaretto (£6.10), which, on Dawn's advice, we shared. They could have been made for each other. And probably were.
When you meet Piero, the kindly, smiley face, the softly-spoken Italianate tones, you can see why Dawn agreed to carry his plates until death do they part, and why she blanched when she took him home for the first time. How had her mother chosen to make this proud Sicilian and brilliant cook feel at home? Why, like all prospective northern British mothers-in-law, of course – she served up spaghetti hoops on toast.
We talk about those 140 potential diners that got away.
“People say to me 'you're losing all that money'. But I'm not losing money,” shrugs Piero. You see, he doesn't care; he doesn't want to be Gordon Ramsay and conquer the world; he only wants people to enjoy his food. That's what he says and I believe him.
It worked for me. Indeed, while I had no wish to steal anyone's thunder at Eastertime, particularly His, I did feel like I'd died and gone to Heaven.
5 Mill Hill Road,
Irby, Wirral, CH61 4UB
0151 648 7373
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect.
Liverpool Confidential critics dine unannounced and we pick up their bills - not the restaurant, not a PR company.