It's dark. Really, seriously, deeply dark. Like, Zero Dark Thirty-dark. I think I just saw Joel Edgerton creep up the stairs in his night-vision gear, but that could just be the Friulano talking. As your eyes adjust (or your night-vision gear powers up), details emerge: small, tightly packed tables cram the converted terrace house upstairs and down. There's not a lot in the way of tablecloths, but there's no shortage of service. And then there's the buzz. What they've saved on lighting they've more than blown on powering the speakers, but the buzz is quite specific. It's the noise Sydney people make when they know they're onto a good thing. They're saying 10 William Street has shifted gears, and it's definitely going places.
This is not to say it's been stuck in the carpark with the choke out in the meantime. Since it opened in 2010, it has been a worthy sequel to Fratelli Paradiso, the Potts Point people-magnet also owned by Marco Ambrosino and the brothers Paradiso, Giovanni and Enrico, keeping the punters well-watered and the street lively. In a preview of the 10 William published in these pages back before it opened, Giovanni described the look the team was going for as a classic '50s Italian bar "with an English post-punk feel to it", and said their hope for the atmosphere was something along the lines of an "intimate house party".
Those missions have been accomplished, and the partners, along with fêted sommelier Matt Young, have kept 10 William at the forefront of the natural winemaking movement in Australia. Their list is largely Italian, supplemented by intelligent, often intriguing additions coming from anywhere from Beaujolais (Jean-Paul Brun Moulin à Vent poured from magnums) to Japan (Young is a leading importer of sake and Japanese whiskies). It remains one of the foremost places to find wines made by mostly small or family producers. Burgundy, Tuscany, the Rhône and Piedmont get their own sections on the list, but so too does the Jura. Another chapter collects "orange, beige and cloudy wines", whether they're Gravner, Radikon or from the lesser-known likes of Channing Daughters on Long Island. And just as the wine list rings with names such as Fanny Sabre, Cornelissen and Occhipinti, the walls are decked out with vinous graffiti from visiting vinous royalty. There in one corner is a typically passionate dedication from Collio winemaker Fulvio Bressan. Another sizeable declaration reads 'Choose Life, Choose No SO2'.
Nothing about the setting suggests luxurious dining, but then neither do the prices. The waiters may be loose in their manner, but they're professional in their method. Glasses are kept filled (and then some) and orders for eats are turned around promptly. It remains a wine bar at heart, only now it's a bar with food that's as interesting as the wine.
The change of gears comes with the arrival of new chef Dan Pepperell. Nothing in his background screams "spaghetti", at least to the casual observer. The ports of call on his curriculum vitae that catch the eye are Oscillate Wildly, Attica and, most recently, Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. Hell, his name doesn't even end in a vowel. And yet.
And yet, freed perhaps by his not-actually-Italianness, he's cooking some of the most interesting Italian food in the land. On the one hand, he's happy to push the boat right out, but not with gels and smears and foams and other stuff that can go so horribly wrong when it's forcibly grafted onto the cucina vera. Instead he does it, for the most part, in ways that are way micro (fish sauce in the ragù to bolster its savoury quality) or way macro (doing vitello tongue tonnato, or pairing vongole with roasted marrow bones or specialling them up another week as "clams XO Italiano") in scale, riffing on combinations of ingredients and flavours as much as anything else.
He's not afraid to play it straight with the likes of a handful of pici, thick, hand-rolled noodles squirming under a Bolognese-style ragù of pork and veal finished with a little milk (watch Daniel make his pici Bolognese in our video exclusive). The signature fried calamari from Fratelli Paradiso makes an appearance of sorts, while the sweet frying peppers known as Jimmy Nardello are served more or less straight up, charry and sweet; ditto the mozzarella. Tagliata with fried polenta simply equals a well-grilled Black Angus sirloin sliced to share (or not) with plenty of good Parmigiano. Pork chop peperonata is like nothing so much as good, gutsy Italian diner food, the juicy slices of meat more Tony Soprano than Sophia Loren with their accompaniment of peppers and eggs. "Hey, I'm eatin' here!"
Dishes such as pickles - sharply acidic pieces of celery, daikon and red radish - with a warmly garlicky bagna cauda dipping sauce recall the early days of Torrisi Italian Specialties, the SoHo restaurant that was more about its neighbourhood and Noo Yawk roots than it was about close readings of tradition. Another day they come dusted with anchovy salt instead. The gags might rely on a working knowledge of Italian restaurant food for full impact, but the flavours and textures stand up regardless.
Sardines receive an interesting treatment. They're lightly cured, draped with translucent swatches of lardo and speckled with dried black olive. A surf 'n' turf snack to be reckoned with. Another standout, blood bruschetta, combines a mash of good black pudding material spread over sweet, very ripe tomatoes on a well-charred slice of bread. It might look a little confronting, but with a few torn basil leaves over the top, the overwhelming impression when you bite into it is of freshness, and it's a superb foil for the grapy, pulpy, skin contact-rich wines popular on the floor.
For the most part it's food that's best shared, though the plates of pasta still work solo. Sides offer interest, chief among them the Momofuku-like fried Brussels sprouts with mint, currants and vinegar.
The sit-at-the-bar-drink-can-of-Moritz crowd is also well looked after in the continuance of the offer of a good, hearty panino, a 10 William staple from its earliest days. Under the kitchen's watch today, that could mean a soft bun sandwiching fried chicken cacciatore dolloped with tarragon mayo (definitely a five-napkin job), just as satisfying, too, paired with a Vie di Romans chardonnay
from Friuli. The next day it could be a ballsy one-two punch of beef short-rib and Gorgonzola.
As in-your-face as some of these ideas may sound, Daniel Pepperell isn't that guy. Good taste rules the roost here, and some of his brightest ideas reframe dishes via quite small gestures. He's a dab hand with a Microplane grater, that's for sure. Shavings of bottarga Italify prawn crackers on one night, smoked devilled eggs another. His take on beef tartare sees the shreds of meat spread out over a thin layer of sour cream, with the acid component coming from wee florets of pickled cauliflower. A rich dusting of cured egg yolk amps up the umami, while a couple of fine grissini are there for textural interest.
There are similar smarts at work with the granita. This being a wine bar at heart, there's not a lot of call for sweet stuff (plenty of calls, though, for yet another bottle, or a drop of good Marsala), so desserts run to the classic and thoroughly creamy Frat Paz tiramisù, and a special or two. If you're lucky, you might find the blood orange granita, its texture a contrast to bubbles of finger lime and a spoonful of mascarpone, cool and elegant.
This is not a date restaurant, or a restaurant where you should bring your parents or a client. It doesn't take bookings, parking is all but non-existent, and there's a good chance you'll end up in the midst of your neighbours' conversation. In some ways, it's barely a restaurant at all. But Dan Pepperell is undoubtedly a chef to watch, and 10 William Street is the place you'll find some of the most interesting and, yes, delicious new cooking in Sydney today. It's also a lot of fun.
I'll see you there - if I remember to pack a torch.