You don’t need sum­mer to en­joy a Mediter­ranean feast by the sea, re­flects El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

SYD­NEY al­ways strikes me as the quin­tes­sen­tial sum­mer city. A wa­tery place of beaches, coves and har­bour fore­shores, its im­age seems in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with sand, sun, salt-air bar­be­cues, biki­nis, pic­nics, rock oys­ters and all the won­drous things the warmer months bring.

But lately I’ve been com­ing around to the no­tion that Syd­ney is even bet­ter in win­ter, when the crowds of tourists who book out the best ta­bles at wa­ter­front restau­rants are ab­sent and it’s pos­si­ble to find a park­ing space within 2km of the sea.

In­deed, the crisp months be­tween May and Septem­ber are ar­guably the best to sam­ple Syd­ney’s more touristy restau­rants: there’s some­thing en­chant­ing about din­ing un­der a cool blue sky as the sun’s golden hues sparkle on stretches of wa­ter de­void of the usual nau­ti­cal bus­tle.

This oc­curs to us on this mid­week June day as we oc­cupy a win­dow ta­ble at Pilu at Fresh­wa­ter, the Ital­ian restau­rant of Sar­dinian-born chef Gio­vanni Pilu, spec­tac­u­larly perched above Fresh­wa­ter, one of Syd­ney’s pret­ti­est north­ern beaches.

For those like us, used to the un­com­fort­able hus­tle of the in­ner city, Pilu’s set­ting is com­pletely charm­ing, es­pe­cially be­cause to­day the beach is all but clear and the car park is star­tlingly empty. Surely this must be one of the few places in Syd­ney where park­ing is not a prob­lem, or at least not at present, when the sur­fies, beach babes and other sun junkies are, mer­ci­fully, else­where.

Even the restau­rant — lo­cated in a lovely wood, glass and stone her­itage house on the north­ern stretch of head­land — is rel­a­tively quiet to­day. There are a few ta­bles of lunch­ers, but the usual push­ing and shov­ing we ex­pe­ri­ence at many Syd­ney restau­rants is ab­sent and in its place is a re­laxed air ex­actly ap­pro­pri­ate for a cool win­try lunch. Ac­cord- in­gly, the ser­vice is won­der­fully at­ten­tive with­out be­ing stuffy, and as we are seated in the en­closed veranda, which has been con­verted into an ap­peal­ing deck with ta­bles to make the most of the coastal as­pect, we know we’re in for a mem­o­rable oc­ca­sion.

And, make no mis­take, this is no sea­side fish-and-chip­pery or or­di­nary beach bistro. Damask table­cloths and heavy sil­ver im­me­di­ately dis­tin­guish Pilu as a fine diner, and the menu — filled with mouth-wa­ter­ing Sar­dinian spe­cial­ties such as roasted suck­ling pig — place it firmly above the level of the usual sub­ur­ban Ital­ian trattoria.

Hun­gry af­ter the 40-minute drive from the city, my hus­band, Baz Bris­bane, and I start with an an­tipasti se­lec­tion of fried Sar­dinian bread (so thin it is redo­lent of crisp­bread), served with three types of olives (two green and one Lig­urian) and buf­falo moz­zarella with truf­fled honey ($13), fol­lowed by glasses of Ital­ian wine: a spicy Mon­te­oro white ($12) for me and an ex­cel­lent and earthy Hof­s­tat­ter pinot nero ($15) for Baz.

As we are tuck­ing into our bread, a richly re­ward­ing amuse bouche of warm ar­ti­choke soup with pis­ta­chio oil ar­rives, tak­ing any hint of win­ter chill out of the air.

It’s dif­fi­cult not to be wooed by the in­trigu­ing menu, and the en­trees as well as the mains lists of­fer in­ter­est­ing Sar­dinian al­ter­na­tives to familiar Ital­ian sta­ples. Af­ter lengthy con­sid­er­a­tion we se­lect two ex­cel­lent and in­no­va­tive pasta starters: a ravi­oli of potato, mint and pecorino served with but­ter, sage and black truf­fle ($23), and a saf­fron faz­zo­letti (like a large, open ravi­olo) with Ital­ian pork sausage and a rich tomato sauce, topped with fried basil leaves ($25).

It’s hard to know who has or­dered bet­ter, as both meals are de­voured be­fore we can sam­ple each other’s. I can at­test my faz­zo­letti is an ex­cep­tional dish, the hint of chilli and fen­nel seeds in the crum­bled sausage meat adding a spicy layer of flavour to the vi­brantly red tomato sauce. Baz also avows his ravi­oli is won­der­ful, the earthy flavour of the truf­fle work­ing well with the potato and sage.

The en­trees list is so en­tic­ing, I de­cide to try a sec­ond dish from it for my main, this time a fat cala­mari tube stuffed with pine nuts, baby squid, fre­gola, olives and herbs ($24), while Baz for­goes the very tempt­ing suck­ling pig ($38) and even his favourite dish of spatch­cock — here deboned and served with es­chalots, baby carrots and salsa verde ($36) — in pref­er­ence for a promis­ing tomato and seafood stew ($38).

The lat­ter is a stand­out dish, rich, sat­is­fy­ing and filled with mar­ket-fresh seafood, most no­tably some juicy crab claws, as well as chunks of fish and mus­sels. My cala­mari is more in­ter­est­ing than mouth wa­ter­ing, the lemony olive and squid com­bi­na­tion per­haps bet­ter suited to a warmer day.

Never mind, cof­fee and bis­cotti ($4.50 each) round off the meal per­fectly, even as we make plans to re­turn for, among other things, a more deca­dent dessert of Sar­dinian pas­tries with ri­cotta and honey ($16).

So the af­ter­noon is whiled pleas­antly away. Our bel­lies full and our tourists’ senses sat­is­fied by the won­der­ful views, we leave, wish­ing ev­ery Syd­ney restau­rant could be as de­light­ful as Pilu at Fresh­wa­ter, in win­ter or in sum­mer. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

More than a beach bistro: Chef Gio­vanni Pilu, of Pilu at Fresh­wa­ter, above left; one of the restau­rant’s Sar­dinian-in­flu­enced dishes, roasted suck­ling pig

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