Italian cooking is being reimagined at a new generation of boundary-pushing restaurants.
The rules of great Italian food are fairly straightforward. Quality ingredients, treated simply and with respect.And while playing by the rules makes winners of many, in the past year, a new wave of envelope-pushing eateries are redefining, yet again, our take on la vera cucina. In Sydney, judging by the restaurant names, it’s a Godfather-like crew – Alberto! Peppe! Totti! Don! – all rolling pasta to their own beat. While in Melbourne, more established players are making a case for old-school food and hospitality, with new-school brio.
SYDNEY ALBERTO’S LOUNGE
Chef Daniel Pepperell is king of ‘ish’. He put XO with snails at Hubert (Frenchish). Pickled, crumbed and fried sardines for katsu sando at 10 William St (Italian-Asian-ish). And now, rocking the pans at Alberto’s in the backstreets of Surry Hills, you’re as likely to find garam masala and fenugreek in his trippa alla Romana as you are tomato and pecorino.As Sydney’s come to expect from the team behind Hubert, The Baxter Inn et al, there’s as much rollicking fun to be found on Andy Tyson’s Italo-natural wine list as what’s on the plate. He makes a glass of Radikon and a cannoli, piped-to-order with whipped buttermilk ricotta sound like the best idea you’ve had all night.
Don’t leave, Don Peppino’s. We know you’re semi-permanent because that’s the way things roll with Full Circle, the restaurant collective of chefs Daniel Johnston and Harry Levy, and manager Tom Merryweather, but we wish you’d stay. There’s fun to be had here in an old nightclub on Oxford Street. Handmade and extruded pasta reigns supreme.
Dishes such as ricotta ravioli with walnut sauce and Puglian cece e tria, fresh and fried pasta with chickpeas, were inspired by the trio’s research trip across Italy. Our pick of the drinks?
The Bianco Peppino, a wine the team crushed by foot with vintner Trish Nelson, of Gazzetta wines in Lazio.
The cheesier the better? Not if you ask the team at Peppe’s, a new vegan pasta bar in Bondi. “Italian food is not as heavy on the meat and cheese as people think,” says co-owner Grace Watson.As with its sibling, Paperbark in Waterloo, the menu is less about vegan substitutes and more about keeping it simple.The white sauce for gnocchi bianchi, for instance, is a cauliflower purée cooked in a porcini and garlic stock; the pasta is finished with pangrattato and crisp sage leaves in place of parmesan.
Snag a table under the olive tree in Totti’s courtyard and you could imagine you’re enjoying an Italian summer. Here, chefs Mike Eggert (of Pinbone fame) and Khan Danis (ex-Rockpool) dish out wood-fired bread to go with the bright likes of mortadella, ’nduja and whipped ricotta and pappardelle with lamb ragù. Chickens are brined, smoked and roasted in the wood-fired oven to tasty effect. And pray the not-so-Italian ‘Neapolitan’ ice-cream sandwiches are on.
Chef Casey Wall is a North Carolina native so there’s plenty of Italo-American red-sauce flavour. Wall cooks 48-hour fermented pizzas in an electric oven and tops deep-dish ‘Grandma pies’ with the simple likes of tomatoes, garlic and marjoram. Among the smart cocktails is a clarified milk punch with lady-fingers, coffee and rum. Sound familiar? It’s the tiramisù to have when you’re too full for tiramisù.
DI STASIO CITTÀ
Dress up. Di Stasio Città, the return by art-loving restaurateur Rinaldo ‘Ronnie’ Di Stasio to Melbourne’s CBD after three decades, is worth celebrating. Città is big and bold in mood and menu. St Kilda’s signature foil-wrapped after-school sandwich, the merenda, has made the journey to the city, along with the mini milk buns with mortadella.The day’s pasta might be spaghettone, cooked on point, with tomato and guanciale.The old-school glamour is aided and abetted by maître d’ Mallory Wall, who has been with Di Stasio for nearly 20 years.
Former DOC owner Tony Nicolini has put everything from pear tomatoes from Abruzzo to sustainable pizza flour from Veneto on an altar. His new salumi and pizza joint, Italian Artisans, is an even more considered showcase of producers he respects. “It’s more than a love of food,” he says. “It’s a love of craft.” Slow pizza, as he calls it, is the heart of the menu: a style made from alternative grains from central and southern Italy. “It can make you feel good, not guilty.”
Lupo, a cosy mod-Italian diner, is the latest from chef Scott Pickett. Occupying the former Saint Crispin site, it’s an eatery inspired by Italian flavours but not governed by them. “We’re being pretty liberal with the names and terms,” says Pickett. Gnocco fritto – “not like your nonna used to make” – comes filled with roasted garlic foam and smothered with parmesan. A spannercrab lasagne, from head chef Charlie Watson, sees basil pasta layered with scallop, crab, finger lime and celtuce. Get your fill of Italian recipes – classic, modern and mash-ups – at delicious.com.au.
NEW ORDER Clockwise from top left: antipasti at Alberto’s; interiors of Lupo and Di Stasio Città; the courtyard at Totti’s replete with olive tree.