When Andrea Conti and Marcela Castillo first envisaged their food truck, they wanted customers to feel as if they had been transported into an Italian household.
“We wanted them to have that feeling of comfort,” Conti says, gesticulating both of his arms with the fervour of a conductor.
“And its taste too,” Castillo says.
Their menu wouldn’t consist of food typically ordered in an Italian restaurant, but rather, that served at home, Conti says. “Something traditional, maybe like my grandma’s way.”
Pasta dishes became the couple’s focus, with paninis served during lunch hours.
They drew inspiration from more casual Italian dining, and the trattoria, not the ristorante, Castillo says. “You can find trattorias in Dublin. But we couldn’t find anyone doing one in a food truck.”
“The idea was not to make fancier food,” she says, “but something fresh, affordable.”
All their aspirations culminated in the Pastiamo Truckttoria, a truck-based trattoria, and the latest addition to The Place, a food yard on Grand Canal Street.
On Friday last, at noon, the sun beamed over the food yard neighbouring Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital as the first signs of lunch break were showing.
Modest queues stood outside a grilled-sandwich trailer, an old shipping container now serving South Indian cuisine, and a taco truck.
Inside the Pastiamo kitchen, a jovial Conti offers all salutations in Italian while he builds a panini with smoked cheese, roasted pepper, artichoke, salame Napoli and a spicy mayonnaise, which hides a kick of heat in its aftertaste.
The truck is decorated with images of an Italian street and spaghetti bolognese. Hanging from either side of the concession window are floral baskets.
On the ground sits a large pot of fresh basil. The countertop displays more of the herb, alongside a stainless steel pot of tomatoes and courgettes, and a hefty wheel of Pecorino Romano, a hard sheep’s milk cheese.
The top of the cheese has been sliced off, a hole carved into its centre. This, Conti says, is for their carbonara. Pasta, egg and crispy guanciale – cured pork cheek – are dropped into the ad hoc bowl and stirred around vigorously before serving.
Every now and then, given how hot it is outside, Conti wets the wheel with water from a kettle so it stays moist.
“It keeps it hydrated,” he says. “And when you place the pasta in, a little bit of water helps to give you that creamy sauce even without using cream.”
Mid-afternoon the following day, the couple take a seat at a pink picnic table by the edge of the yard.
The lunch surge has waned. They are relieved, they say, if not more than an ounce wrecked, and still adjusting to the pace of working in a market.
“The boundaries between you and the customer are different here,” Conti says. “You have to be that bit quicker here.”
Neither are novices. Conti has worked in kitchens for roughly 20 years, he says. But running a stall takes a different kind of energy, he says, and the couple are only into their second full week at The Place.
“It’s not like your basic kitchen where you just go in in the morning,” he says, laughing a little. “Here, it’s driving in, setting up and then thinking about the preparation, and every day it’s always been so different.”
Conti grew up south of Rome, he says, surrounded by family members in the food industry. Of his three uncles, one ran a pizzeria, another a bakery, and a third a trattoria which made its own pasta.
In his early teens, he would wait in his uncles’ establishments after school for his mother to finish up her work in yet another restaurant, he says.
Then, one day, he just asked if he could do something, says Conti. “It started almost as a game.”
He was 21 years old when he moved to Dublin. In 2014, he met Castillo, who had just relocated from Guadalajara in Mexico.
Castillo had come to Dublin to learn English, she says. “But I learned Italian first. I’ve lived in a little Italian community and worked mostly in Italian places.”
Over the course of their relationship, Conti would serve as the head chef at Paulie’s Pizza on Grand Canal Street Upper, and later, That’s Amore, based out in Monkstown.
During the pandemic, he decided to change gears, Castillo says. They began to discuss a possible new business. Something quieter, she says. “We didn’t want something big.”
In late 2021, the idea for the Pastiamo Truckttoria emerged. They announced their plans early the next year, and, after acquiring a suitable truck, began trading in late May.
At first, they did the rounds of Dublin’s many different food markets, a day in Spencer Dock, another in University College Dublin and then all the way out to Sandyford for Fridays. They then branched out, doing markets in Kilkenny alongside the odd catering gig.
Finally, they landed on Grand Canal Street as their regular base, and on 10 August it became their new trading home.
On the Saturday, the truck’s special on offer is a porcini mushroom-filled ravioli, known as Panzerotti.
Ladled over each of the crescent-shaped bites is a creamy red wine sauce, topped off with guanciale and sheets of grated semi-aged goat cheese.
Conti says proudly that this was the first dish he learned to cook, when he was 15 years old
It isn’t necessarily a traditional Italian recipe, he says. “But we like to give the experience of …”
“Of you,” Castillo says.
“It is a taste of the experiences I have had through these years,” he says.
Their ingredients, Castillo says, are primarily sourced from Italian suppliers. “It’s all about his roots and his traditions and his home.”
Like the Panzarotti, the menu, though it rotates, is prepared like a biography of the Conti family.
Conti points to one of the current side dishes, suppli, a deep-fried ball of rice with tomato sauce and mozzarella. That recipe he honed when his grandmother came to visit Dublin not long ago, Castillo says.
“He had been with his nonna and they cooked it together, because he wanted to catch everything she did.”
“It’s actually her recipe,” Conti says. “She just came up to me one day and said, ‘Okay, it’s time to refresh your technique.’”
Underlining his food with a concept of family traditions is important, he says. “To be authentic is to make this about your experiences. You can have a fancy dining experience, but you don’t forget about your roots.”
As the pair hop back into the truck to prepare some suppli, Conti delights in detailing what he adores about this particular snack.
With his arms, he imitates the stretching out of the melted mozzarella as the ball is broken in half.
The experience of the food, his process, every ingredient, what is on display is there to be discussed.
Before Castillo joins him, she watches him deliver this sermon about the suppli.
It is his intense passion that captivates her, she says. Even during the lockdown, when he was only cooking for the pair of them, he spoke with equal passion.
“He just loves food. He just loves cooking.”
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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.
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