While we were wrestling with the big questions about Italian food for this issue - pasta or pizza? Margherita or marinara? - we got to wondering what the chefs who were serving it to us thought. So we asked some of Australia's best Italian chefs to nominate their favourite Italian dishes. Their choices ranged from simple café treats to sophisticated takes on the classics, but there were two common themes: an emphasis on tradition and the primacy of ingredients over technique.
Cres tasa with porcini ragù and burrata, Il Bàcaro,
"Cres tasa is a house-made diamond-shaped pasta made from polenta instead of flour. It also doesn't contain eggs, so it's vegan (normally, I feel, a swearword in the kitchen). To me, a great dish is something I want to eat every day, and this is definitely one." Jason Jujnovich, Divido, Perth
Gnocchi with Gorgonzola and celery leaf, Sparrow Kitchen
& Bar, Adelaide
"Although it's not fundamentally Italian, this dish rocks. I used to eat it all the time. Gnocchi is my kind of comfort food and this is gnocchi at its best - rich and delicious." Tom Robinson, Auge, Adelaide
Pizza Margherita, Pizza e Birra,
"I often run up the road if I have a few minutes to get one of Silvana's traditional Margherita pizze. It is the closest thing to Naples I can find without leaving St Kilda." Steven Rofe, Café Di Stasio, Melbourne
Pea, shallot, mint, basil, air-dried ricotta, olive oil
and red wine vinegar, Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons,
"This lovely salad is reminiscent of those my mother makes. When grazing through the menu at Giuseppe Arnaldo, it's great to have something refreshing to cut through the many flavours. Fresh, simple and fragrant." Camillo Crugnale, Assaggio, Adelaide
Fettuccine al tartufovo, Buon Ricordo, Sydney
"Armando Percuoco's dish of fettuccine with cream and parmesan, topped with a fried truffle egg is consistently well done. And I really like that the waiters finish off the dish by tossing it for you at the table." Romain Bapst, Il Centro Restaurant and Bar, Brisbane
Carne cruda battuta di vitello, Icebergs, Sydney
"Robert Marchetti's milk-fed veal (raw, diced, beaten) with mushroom, truffled pecorino and crostoni is seasoned beautifully, and the pickled mushrooms give it a real zip that works well with the nutty earthiness of the truffled butter." James Hird, Buzo, Sydney
Pork medallions with lemon and mustard, Ceccanti Kiewa
Valley, Tawonga, Vic
"When the pork arrives, paper-thin, at the table, you understand the bashing noises coming from the kitchen. This type of cooking, of my mother's generation, has almost disappeared from Italian kitchens, but the first bite transports me back to those forgotten old flavours. This simple dish is one you'll want to taste again and again. Fantastico!" Patrizia Simone, Simone's, Bright, Vic
Spaghetti with smoked eel and chilli, Buzo,
"I know it sounds simple but the flavours were so clean, subtle and slightly smoky that you can really taste the quality of the produce. What I like the most is the fact that it's the sort of dish I would make for myself, but don't have to." Logan Campbell, Lucio's, Sydney
Ricotta panna cotta, Vini, Sydney
"I often come here with my wife for lunch and the one thing we must have is the ricotta panna cotta. It's served with toasted almonds and an espresso caramel, so there's a contrast between the lightness of the panna cotta and the savoury bitterness of the coffee. The textural elements make it a standout." Todd Garratt, Buzo, Sydney
Kingfish carpaccio, Grossi Florentino,
"This dish of kingfish carpaccio with eucalyptus oil, blood orange, Pantelleria capers, watercress and piquillo peppers is classic, tasty and simple. The acid in the citrus lightly cures the fish, while the peppers bring sweetness to the palate." Brent Kemble-Beech, Enoteca, Adelaide
Risotto with rock oysters, prosecco and orange zest,
Ormeggio at the Spit, Sydney
"In Italy, risotto is a light dish, usually served as an entrée. Alessandro Pavoni's version is one of the best I have had here. You can really feel the texture of the rice, and it has just the right balance of flavours. Simple and light." Massimo Bianchi, Uccello, Sydney
Malloreddus allo zafferano con ragù di conigilo, Pilu at
"This earthy dish of chef Giovanni Pilu showcases his Sardinian heritage with gusto. Small-grooved pasta flavoured with saffron perfectly carries the rich rabbit ragù." Guy Grossi, Grossi Florentino, Melbourne
Tartufo di Amedei chocolate, Bells at Killcare, NSW
"Bells is a beautiful restaurant and chef Steve Manfredi's tartufo dessert is to die for. It's a thin crust of Amedei chocolate surrounding a soft gianduja mousse with grappa-soaked sponge inside and a lychee centre. It looks like a black truffle, a misshapen ball, surrounded by caramelised clotted cream. It's decadent, rich and a great way to finish an excellent meal." Jonathan Barthelmess, Manly Pavilion, Sydney
Slow-cooked goat and potatoes, Svago,
"Restaurateur Cesare Tabacco runs a very good restaurant. The food is ever-changing, with new ingredients sourced from all over Victoria. The dish I love best is the slow-cooked goat and potatoes. I put the plate in front of me and guard it fiercely. It reminds me of the way my mum made it when I was growing up." Joseph Vargetto, Mezzo Bar and Grill, Melbourne
Patate e salsiccia pizza, Rosso Pomodoro,
"Nothing beats a good pizza and the guys at Rosso Pomodoro are really good pizza-makers. I love the potato and sausage, or the porcini and prosciutto. The base is relatively thin, the pastry as light as a feather, there's not too much sauce and the dough has been properly kneaded. And, most importantly, the toppings are minimal, so there's just one hero." Eugenio Maiale, A Tavola and Omertà, Sydney
Orecchiette with rabbit and cauliflower, Da Noi,
"Da Noi has a great, comfy 'at home' feel and chef Pietro Porcu's ever-changing menu is always interesting. A standout dish I have had there is the orecchiette, I can't go past it." Rhys Phillips, Bottega, Melbourne
Salt-crusted snapper, Lucio's, Sydney
"I love this fish, it's so delicate: a simple snapper fillet with a salt and eggwhite crust that's baked. What I like most about this style of cooking is the respect it shows for the fish." Armando Percuoco, Buon Ricordo, Sydney
Abbacchio scottadito (char-grilled lamb), Café Di
"What can I say that hasn't been said already about Ronnie di Stasio? He's a restaurateur, art collector, mentor and good friend. Ronnie is comfortable doing things his way, and this dish is no exception. He doesn't follow trends and has only one rule: no jerks allowed. Scottadito, "burnt fingers", means exactly that [you burn your fingers because you can't wait for the meat to cool down] and I love it. Dark, crisp, blackened, sweet and pink on the inside, these lamb ribs are the real deal and not for the weak or faint." Robert Marchetti, Icebergs and North Bondi Italian, Sydney; Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons, Melbourne
Linguine with scampi, garlic, cherry tomatoes and white
wine, Dell'ugo, Brisbane
"The flavours are very simple, they use very few ingredients and they don't cover the pasta in sauce, so you can really taste the scampi. This style is authentic Italian at its best." Tony Percuoco, Ristorante Fellini, Gold Coast, Qld
Slow-cooked tripe, Journal Canteen,
"Stewed tripe with vegetables and tomato, served with parsley and Parmigiano-Reggiano, is a real peasant dish. When I heard cook Rosa Mitchell had this on the menu, I dashed over on my day off and experienced one of the most memorable meals I've had in Australia. It reminded me of my mum's cooking in Verona. I had a tear in my eye because the dish was cooked with heart and soul!" Mirco Speri, Svago, Melbourne
Amedei chocolate gelato, Pompei's, Sydney
"The gelato here is as good as any you would find at a top Italian gelataria. The absolute best is the Amedei chocolate gelato, it is fantastic." Alessandro Pavoni, Ormeggio at the Spit, Sydney
Variazione di baccalà, Arrivederci,
"I admire Salvatore Caccioppoli's cooking; he really brings authentic Italian flavours to the table. The dish that impressed me most was the three variations of salt cod; you don't often see baccalà done like this. The dish looked modern but the flavours are close to home." Leonardo Gelsomino, The Grand Hotel, Melbourne
Spiedo alla Bresciana, Ormeggio at the Spit,
"My absolute favourite dish is the slow-roasted quail. Cooked for about three hours, basted in butter, served with polenta… oh my god, I go crazy for it! Sometimes I call Alessandro [chef Alessandro Pavoni] and say, 'Listen, I'm working but I'm starving. Can you save me one piece?' I rock up at about 11.30pm and have dinner. It is amazing." Giovanni Pilu, Pilu at Freshwater, Sydney
Capretto alla Romana, Sosta Cucina, Melbourne
"My favourite Italian dish is this whole baby goat that has been broken down, marinated and very slowly braised for hours. It is done perfectly. It's a really traditional dish but the flavours are amazing. Mum used to make it all the time and this version is probably the closest thing I've had to hers." David Dellai, Il Bàcaro, Melbourne
Pork, rocket and mayonnaise panino, Belli Bar,
"The guys here do a fantastic Italian sausage panino. It's got a mad mayonnaise, I don't know what they do to it, with rocket and an unbelievable pork sausage. It is so simple, but that's what I like, and I never share. I don't believe in sharing." Vanessa Martin, Il Piavé, Sydney
Pastiera Napoletana, Loafer Bread,
"This place is doing amazing things with breads and baking. Right now Andrea [pastry chef and owner Andrea Brabazon] has a pastiera Napoletana, a classic Neapolitan Easter cake made with ricotta and cooked wheat. I went there yesterday and had a piece and I couldn't believe it, just like Italy. She does the best croissants and bomboloni. It's really small but out of this world." Pietro Porcu, Da Noi, Melbourne
Quail with pear, pine nuts, blue cheese gelato and
vincotto, Restaurant 3777 at Mt Rael Retreat, Healesville,
"Chef Jarrard Botting's quail with blue cheese gelato might seem misplaced on a regional menu, purely because it's such an elegant example of rustic Italian game food. The quail is marinated for 48 hours in parsley, garlic and chilli, then char-grilled and served with a salad of roasted pear, pine nuts, radish shoots and beetroot shoots, which really lightens the succulent game flavours." Riccardo Momesso, Sarti, Melbourne
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