“What d’you want?”
“A Choc Ice!”
“Wha’? What does it say right there?”
“Bimbo’s Burgers right. And wha?”
“Today’s chips today.”
“Does it fuckin say anythin’ about Choc ices?”
– The Van, 1996
There’s nothing in Sorrento’s to hint that there might be Choc Ices on the menu. There’s certainly not much to hint at proper Italian gelato, either. The place looks pretty much exactly how you’d expect a backstreet chipper to look. There’s a bench by the window with two auld lads waiting silently on their dinner, a high table to the side of them stacked with messy copies of News of the World, and a backlit menu behind the counter with faded photos of quarter pounder meals. Deals of the day – like a €4 batter sausage and chips at lunchtime – are scribbled on luminous, star-shaped scraps of card dotted around the shop, and the walls are covered in posters for Philly Cheesesteaks and chicken Subs. Sharper eyes than mine might have clocked the stack of cardboard tubs under the menu board, but it’d be easy enough to take them for garlic dip cups. Luckily I was tipped off about the gelato, so I’m there for one thing on a sunny afternoon in July.
Sorrento’s take their name from a spot in the southwest of Italy. Unlike most Irish-Italian chipper dynasties, they’re not a member of ITICA, the Irish Traditional Italian Chippers Association. ITICA represents a number of old chipper families including the Borzas, the Macaris, and the Caffellos, all of whom came to Ireland from the same small district of villages in the 1880s. It was around then that the first Italian spud dealer, Giuseppe Cervi, stepped off the boat at Cobh and kept walking till he got to Dublin. When he got there, he sold chips from a cart outside pubs until he eventually built a permanent shop on what’s now Pearse St. At that location, he continued to cook chips while his wife ran the till and asked customers “Uno di questo, uno di quello?” – or as we’d say, “one and one?” So the story goes.
While Sorrento might not have started out with a coal-burning cooker outside 19th century taverns, you’d imagine they still do more than a passing trade from the Cobblestone and Dice Bar round the corner. The young Italian girl who works behind the counter is shy, and desperately polite. I wonder was Mrs Cervi quite as obliging. I’m picking up dinner for two, before a film. Quarter pounder meal for my companion and a snack box for the lady. Romantic. She rings them up on the till. Glancing back at the two lads behind me, I blush a bit asking, “Do you have any, er, gelato?” It really doesn’t seem like the place. So I’m surprised when she smiles apologetically. “Only one flavour today. I am so sorry. Mint chocolate. We’ll have more tomorrow.”
Relieved, I ask for a tub to go with my dinner. It’s fifteen quid for the lot. I’m a cheap date. Thanking her, I step outside the shop cradling the meals like a baby. They’re so hot from the fryer they leave a bright red burn on my arm for the next couple of days. To cool down, I taste the gelato before I’ve even touched my dinner. It’s good. Really good. Mint chocolate is a flavour that’s hard enough to mess up – it’s been done to death and it’s still, always, fine. Rarely more or less. The gelato doesn’t have the sting of a pack of Wrigleys, or the iciness of an After Eight, instead filling the palate with the softness and smoothness of a good cup of mint tea. The nuggets of dark chocolate are crispy, rather than chunky, so there’s no bitterness drowning out the other flavours. It’s really, really good – and it tastes all the better for the sheer strangeness of knowing it came with a snack box.
As it happens, I’m delighted to bump into the Sorrento girl again a few weeks later at the flea in Newmarket, where she and an Italian colleague have a gelato stand set up across from a van selling artisan fried potatoes with curry sauce for €6 a plate. G. Cervi would be spinning in his grave. I pick up some more of the mint chocolate, and a scoop of chocolate Guinness flavour that is as unusual as it is tasty. This isn’t just chocolate ice cream made richer by a drop of Guinness – this is melty, slurpy, black stuff in a paper cup. It has the same beefy, umami tones that make Guinness taste ever so slightly like stew. I’m eating a frozen pint, and it’s kind of deadly. Queuing at the posh chip van for a bottle of water, one of the Sorrento gelatiers comes over to ask for a plate of food – “Hey, you interested in doing a swap? That sound good?”
The young lad peeling spuds in the back of the van pipes up, “Yeah, I’d love an ice cream!” just as Mr. Sorrento walks away with his plate of Patatas Bravas. He turns on his heel immediately and snaps, “Hey! It’s gelato!”
Up the road from Newmarket is my very own favourite chipper and former local. Fusco’s opens around 5pm most days, so that in the winter – when chipper chips are officially “in season” and not only taste great, but are good for you, too – the neon green sign in a broad Celtic script lights up the whole of Meath Street. In final year of college, when our house was freezing because the heat was on a meter no one ever paid, I’d sometimes call in for a burger or some chicken nuggets on the way home. Filippo Fusco was always there serving behind the counter. No matter how much you insisted you didn’t want a portion of chips with your snack, you’d always get home to find a generous scoop tucked into the bag, after Filippo shooed you away with a grin.
Of course, Fusco’s was constantly abuzz with kids glugging coke, workers slipping in for dinner and mams having a pot of tea and a portion of onion rings at the formica tables. It was Meath Street community centre and the Queen Vic rolled into one. It was also a dojo.
This isn’t a secret, per se. You only need to glance up from the shelves of Cadet Cola to get an insight into the other side of Filippo Fusco’s life. Covering every wall of the restaurant are photos of Fusco in his blackbelt delivering punches and kicks, perfectly posed with a cheeky grin or a steely glare to camera. My favourite is the photo in which, as Fusco puts it, the chipper man looks “like Pacino” – fists clenched, scowling at the camera with total seriousness.
Fusco’s skills aren’t just for posing. 22 years ago, six boys came into the shop, put a broken bottle to his wife’s cousin’s throat, and demanded they hand over the till. Unfortunately, those boys weren’t aware that these Italians both had blackbelts in kickboxing. She disarmed him, and an hour and twenty minutes later the guards finally arrived to find the shop covered in blood and 6 men unconscious by the fryers. He hasn’t been robbed since.
Luckily enough, he’s generous with his time and skills, and spends evenings after work teaching local kids and teens to fight in the dojo over the shop. “Mr. Miyagi of Meath Street” will get you past a yellow belt, and slip you an extra scoop of chips after.
The last chipper on my list was one I’ve passed several times, and whose house specialty – splashed all over its doors – had long caught my eye. Across the road from the Abbey, Del Rio’s boasts of its lamb’s liver and chips like it’s the dish that clinched the Michelin star. Dear reader, I knew I had to try it. Dear reader, it was awful.
I’ll admit that when I ventured in for lunch I was a little bit delicate. Delicate and foolish.That said, I’m not sure I’ll ever have a strong enough constitution for the Del Rio’s liver and chips special. It arrived promptly once I’d ordered, propped at a formica table because the liver was only on the eat-in menu. The plate swam in chunks of liver, pale chips, and slimy fried onions. On the side was the curry sauce I’d ordered, served comically in a dainty silver jug. The liver looked great, like fatty chunks of steak. I slipped down some onions dipped in ketchup to cleanse the palate.
My first time eating chipper with a real metal fork, I speared and bit into my first piece of liver before immediately giving up. As it turned out, liver actually doesn’t really taste like a nice pâté, as I expected. It tastes more like all of the other parts of the animal, arse included, compressed and concentrated into a single nugget tougher than steel. I choked down one piece, accepted my weakness, and ate my chips in defeated silence. The curry sauce was pretty good.
This article isn’t an exposé designed to convince you that You Won’t Believe What We Found When We Went Looking For Dublin’s Best Chipper. We love Dublin, and we love chippers, but this isn’t that.
Dublin’s best chipper is the one where your mam grabs the dinner when she can’t be arsed cooking, and brings it home so you can eat it watching The Late Late, even though The Late Late is crap. Dublin’s best chipper is the one where you pick up a spice burger after a feed of pints. Dublin’s best chipper is whichever one you like best.
This is just a story of some of Dublin’s chippers which offer a little more than meets the eye. So try the gelato, never mess with Mr. Fusco, run as far as you can from plates of liver, and treasure your local chipper.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney