Restaurant Reviews

Don Peppino's, Sydney review

The food is Italian-ish, with swagger. Don Peppino’s godfathers write their own rules.

By David Matthews
The Don Peppino's dining room
Speaking as someone who never went to the Grand Pacific Blue Room, all I have is questions. Were there always this many stairs when it was a club? Flights and flights of them, turning up and around past what should surely be a whole other level. Did the neon always pulse so hypnotically? Was the cappuccino of white beans with truffle oil on the restaurant menu any good, or was that just a '90s thing?
Full Circle, the collective that, in its current form, comprises floor manager Tom Merryweather and chefs Daniel Johnston and Harry Levy, are running the place – and they sure know how to pick a venue.
For Don Peppino's, they've scraped the patina of cigarette smoke and spilt Daiquiris off the walls of the old Oxford Street nightclub, scattered a few eucalyptus branches around, and called it done.
The burners are firing again in the kitchen that supplied the Blue Room's restaurant, but otherwise it's bare bones and Tupac Shakur posters in the toilets.
The neon-lit staircase. Photo: Harriet Davidson
Wilmer, their last outing, was a sunny alfresco situation in Potts Point, so this might seem something of a regression. Don Peppino's is more in line with the condemned-studio chic the Circle rocked at The Eat In in Chippendale, perhaps, or the fading-Italian-dynasty vibe they gave off at run-down trattoria Alfio's in Leichhardt than a true step forward.
But how else to describe the warm bread rolls filled with caramelised garlic butter shot through with marjoram other than forward-thinking? Or fat fingers of pane fritto shipping a strip of tomato sugo and a single Ortiz anchovy? Good with a Spritz might be another way. You could do worse than sit at the bar, which runs under big arched windows that let the light in, and order these. It's a chance, at least, to take in the Deco design, and recall a time when the club was jumpin'.
Pop-up or not, Don Peppino's is Full Circle's most complete restaurant yet. It's the culmination of a steady evolution in skill and a growing confidence in their own style. These are people who have form running places that only offered set menus, didn't take cards, and took bookings only by text. Who cast off established restaurant trappings, preferring instead to focus on food, wine and good times. Don Peppino's feels the same, a bit underground, a little raw. But now the team has quietly slipped in all those restaurant things it used to avoid, and that focus is sharper than ever.
Ricotta with peperonata, garlic bread, pane fritto with anchovy. Photo: Harriet Davidson
It shows in the execution. Whole river trout, skinned and boned except for the head and tail, is roasted just to the point of being set. The brown butter and almonds saucing it are taken as far as they can be without burning, giving the dish a nuttiness and depth that's kept in check with suprêmes of lemon.
Is trout amandine Italian? Not really. But the Don makes his own rules: salsa d'anatra, the peppery duck ragú, often enriched with duck liver and heart, is enriched with pork instead. It's not a bad choice. Neither is serving it with bucatini.
It's also a chance to show off their pasta skills. They've got an extruder in house, meaning that pasta comes in all shapes and sizes. And when they've got good peas they add them to noodly tonnarelli with baby zucchini and their flowers, and shower it with ricotta salata. Any leftover zucchini might be roasted, tossed with chilli and mint, and served with a lobe of mozzarella.
The menu changes often, but the through-line is food that's cheesy, saucy or, sometimes, both: peperonata with ricotta cooked on the stove one night, pork braised in milk the next.
L to R: Daniel Johnson (seated), Tom Merryweather, Harry Levy. Photo: Saskia Wilson
Wines are either Italian or Australian, and the unifying theme on the list – one page, handwritten – is that almost all of them are made with minimal intervention. The reds, such as the Xavier Goodridge Pa Pa Pinot Noir might be chilled, or at least low in alcohol, for easy drinking. There's also Latta sauvignon blanc from Moonambel in Victoria, and carafes of decent house wines for $27. The half-Negronis that Wilmer introduced return here, joining The Grifter Pale Ale and a cider made with apples pilfered from roadside trees in the Southern Highlands.
This plays to the crowd. It's predominantly young, likes it loud and loose, and isn't going to blink at service that falls somewhere between clear-eyed, precise and brazenly casual. A crowd who'll look at the DJ platform and reminisce about when they were lining up out the front for hip-hop nights and ultra-glam Sundays.
Desserts, too, are an exercise in nostalgia. Halved lemons and cheeks of mango hollowed out and refilled with sorbet improve on those you might find at a suburban pizza shop, plus there's boozy tiramisù, and a star-shaped panna cotta almost collapsing under its own weight and lolling in a burnt-orange caramel. Smart. Simple.
Pop-up? And then some. Don Peppino's is sticking around for an entire year, giving it a chance to stretch and grow. Wherever it goes, on the strength of its first few weeks, it's going to be one party where we all want to be.
The lemon cup. Photo: Harriet Davidson