There's something about having a Sgroppino up front on the drinks list that says this is going to be a good time. Right from the get-go, Alberto is the sort of place where you can order a flute of lemon sorbet and vodka topped up with prosecco, and before you know it you'll be asking for a second plate of focaccia to swipe through the dregs of the paccheri alla Bolognese you just finished, doubling down on the burrata Caprese, then backing it up with a half-bottle of red that, in their words, would make Pavarotti scream.
You might be halfway through the bowl of trippa alla Romana before you notice the Indian spices. Confronted is the word an Italian friend used when I raised it. In certain circles tomato is even considered something of a departure, so when Daniel Pepperell decides to take the dish in the direction of butter chicken – throwing in garam masala and fenugreek, enriching it with cream and going heavy on the burro – you can't help but wonder if he's just doing it for kicks.
And yet. Here are strips of honeycomb tripe melting into the sauce the way you might find in a trattoria in Testaccio. Here are wilted mint leaves, and there's a crumble of pecorino. Needless to say, Pepperell has a firm grip on his fundamentals. What's more, it's a damn good bowl of tripe.
It's been a little while between Italian restaurants for the former 10 William Street chef, who's spent the better part of three years on the terrines and Tatins in the basement at Restaurant Hubert. With Alberto, brothers Anton and Stefan Forte (who also run The Baxter Inn, Shady Pines Saloon and Frankie's Pizza) and colleague Toby Hilton have given Pepperell a new playground in which to reignite his interpretation of la vera cucina. And he's fallen straight back into the groove.
Funny thing, though, it looks a lot like the other playground. Pocket Hubert, let's say, given the tighter dimensions. Most traces of Berta, the ristorante that once inhabited this site, have dissolved into a background of plush carpet and wood panelling. Wine bottles and framed vintage posters line the walls, and the brick outside the back windows (windows!) has been painted with a mural by Sydney artist Allie Webb, who does the graphics at their other venues. The cocktails are just as flowing as at Hubert, most nights there's a queue, and there's that same sense of stepping back into a golden age that has long since passed. Clearly, Alberto is embracing his billing as the Italian cousin with gusto: same soft-lit charm, but a little more bustle, a little more jostling for space, and (just maybe) a little more fun.
And Pepperell can still play it straight. Take the Amatriciana: house-made bucatini in a sauce of guanciale and its rendered fat with pecorino Romano, chilli and tomato that's both rich and slippery, in a good way. There's a plate of thinly sliced mortadella, prosciutto, grissini, and a few chunks of Piave vecchio (the same umami-rich cheese that appears spread over a side salad of rocket) that largely lets the pieces speak for themselves. The only surprises here come in coins of fermented kohlrabi and something they call "rolled, dehydrated pork loin" that eats like a fennel-spiced meat Roll-Up.
When Pepperell does stretch a little, it's with a clear sense of how to turn up the tastiness in ways that, though unconventional, stay consistent with the tone and flavour of everything else on the menu. If it was fish sauce in the Bolognese at 10 William Street and XO with the escargots at Hubert, here it's the nubs of deep-fried tripe that give textural contrast to that bowl of trippa, the cream that lightens it, and the spices that hold back the funk. It's the decision to ferment tomato water for the peppers acqua pazza (literally, peppers with "crazy water") and add prawn oil for depth rather than go in for the whole fish-poached-in-herb-broth business. Or to bind the sauce spooned over fat cylinders of gnocchi with cream and butter in a creamier, more buttery version of cacio e pepe.
Is paying $26 for 10 pieces of gnocchi in sauce expensive? It might be why it's come off the menu. Then again, Pepperell might just have tired of nights spent glued to the pass grinding pepper. Dropping the nozzle size on the piping bag for the gnocchi al pomodoro that replaced it makes the dish feel more generous, and the addition of ricotta to the dough makes the gnocchi that much lighter.
The wine list continues in the same vein as the food, with a strong but not total allegiance to Italy. When sommelier Andy Tyson worked at Monopole (full disclosure: we worked there together) he had a reputation for being able to pick the wine in the blind tastings more than anyone. He wrote the broad and beautiful wine list at Hubert that took out the 2017 Gourmet Traveller Wine List of the Year award, and he moves on the floor here like a man who had fun putting this one together. Ask for his help and he might choose you a bottle of 2016 Botonero Nebbiolo grown on the slopes of Valtellina in Lombardy from a section labelled "Il Rosso Divino" that's populated with back vintages and dominated by Barolo, then choose the dishes to go with it.
Sean McManus, Tyson's protégé, formerly of Neighbourhood and Bad Hombres, might suggest an organic Lamoresca Bianco from Sicily. The list presents every opportunity to order that 1958 Fontanafredda you always had your eye on, but there's also plenty under $100 if you don't want to push the boat out too far. There's also a biggish selection of Champagne, and Radikon by the glass ("Fellini's Favorite"), because, what the hell. Service, meanwhile, is just as smooth and charming as at Hubert, and the presence of Benjamin Brown (previously at Sepia) has only strengthened the appeal.
It's not all plain sailing. The sight of the robata grill flaring up aggressively under a $95 bistecca makes me think it's an expensive, possibly burnt, gamble, and the swordfish – smeared with a mix of sardine, pine nuts and currants – can come off the coals on the dry side. But these feel like the exception, not the rule. The cotoletta – pork neck pan-fried in a herb crumb – is crisp and juicy. And the scarlet prawns, brushed simply with colatura d'alici, the anchovy essence, grilled, and topped with salt flakes, are a masterstroke. Tear off the head, dip the body in the spilt head juices, lick fingers, repeat.
Desserts are restrained. There's a single crisp cannolo filled with ricotta shot through with pistachio and candied orange peel that makes you wish all versions could all be like this. Order two. Or two scoops of whatever gelato or sorbetto they're churning. I've seen young coconut and dark chocolate, but the selection changes with such frequency that it could be hazelnut and pistachio or (a nod, perhaps, to the proximity of Thai Town) mango and sticky rice. Whatever the flavour, it's a clean finish pulled off with aplomb.
For those who hold the tenets of Italian cuisine close – good ingredients, treated simply and with respect – or those who want a little pizzazz, they'll find both at Alberto. What's more, it feels like Pepperell is finally back where he belongs, keeping true to tradition, but not being bound by it. At once traditional, progressive, timeless and contemporary, Alberto is a restaurant that, like Hubert, puts fun at the top of the list of priorities, which suggests it might be here for a long time yet.