It might look more like a café on first glance, but Fratelli Paradiso is a beacon and reliquary of true Italian restaurant culture. The beacon sits on Challis Avenue in Potts Point, a boundlessly chi-chi neighbourhood known for its table-hopping restaurant culture, ground-zero for the myth of the kitchenless Sydney apartment, but not what you'd otherwise call a hotbed of good Italian eating. Fratelli means 'brothers' - in this case the lyrically surnamed Enrico and Giovanni 'Johnny' Paradiso, who opened the place in 2001 after moving from Melbourne, and were later joined by partner Marco Ambrosino. The boys had previously owned a place called Mamadu at Southbank, but it's in Sydney that the brothers Paradise and their crew have carved their niche, made their bones. It's slightly ironic, mind, because everyone describes Fratelli Paradiso as being as Melbourne as all get-out.
The niche in question is a U-shaped conjoining of two rooms beneath an apartment building, with a bakery to the left, where you may also be seated for dinner, and the dining room proper at the right. The general look is dark - verging on too dark - urbane and pretty darn sexy. Sexy and loud, that is; simmering just below raucous is the restaurant's natural volume setting. A long awning and quite a few outside tables make for marginally calmer dining, not to mention people-watching pole position.
The vibe is café/wine bar, but the cutlery is good and weighty, there's flake salt and a pepper grinder on each table, and the bread, fresh from the ovens next door, is impeccable. Wine is a fascination for the brothers, and the double-sided, double-spaced A4 list of mostly Italian bottles, with a fair whack by the glass, is the fruit of their own Italian fact-finding missions.
You can either read the short menu from the blackboard - it's in Italian, naturally - or have it recited to you tableside. The waiters choose to give it to you and two other tables at once. They know the menu inside out and the wine list like the back of their hand. These waiters are far from invisible and constitute a large part of whatever it is that makes Paradiso paradiso. There's certainly attitude here, but it never comes unaccompanied by flashes of charm. That element of pride - there's no doubt who's running the show here, and it isn't the people sitting down with forks in their hands - will remind some diners of Melbourne's Caffé e Cucina and others of Italy. I'd categorise the pacing more like an Italian than Swiss watch; the waits aren't interminable, but are slightly more elastic than what Sydney crowds are used to. Good humour shared between the regulars and the unflinchingly confident staff, though, goes a long way on the floor.
Food walks the line between café and tratt, with an emphasis on gutsy flavours. The antipasto this week is a plate of sweet prosciutto, cubes of melon, a fried zucchini flower and green olives stuffed with goat's curd and ricotta, crumbed and deep-fried. It's excellent, everything is on the plate for a reason, and there's none of the usual tired filler. You could happily subsist on little more than a bottle of vermentino and, say, 40 of the stuffed olives alone. Pork poached in milk and then pulled apart into juicy shreds makes a fine base for a salad, and is a great example of how the kitchen throws curveballs, bringing some real creativity and diversity to the menu without resorting to bells and whistles. They also do the best take on eggplant parm in town, stuffing an eggplant pocket with buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, crumbing it and then giving it a quick dip in the deep-fryer. Then there's the calamari Sant' Andrea, named for both the chef who made it, Andrea Mantese (a Caffé e Cucina alumnus, Mantese cooked at the restaurant when it first opened, and has popped up in the kitchen again lately), and the patron saint of fishermen. It's squid rings simply floured, flash-fried and served with a balsamic dressing. It's served on rocket, but isn't rocket science, just a good idea done well and left to stand on its merits. They've also been brave enough to keep the lasagne al forno, straight-up in its own little gratin dish, static on the otherwise ever-changing menu.
There's the occasional pothole in what is otherwise a pretty smooth ride. Jewfish with celeriac mash is something you could find at any given 50 Mod Oz restaurants around the country; serviceable, but not particularly vibrant or memorable. That service-as-performance vibe has its downsides, and attention to detail can be a casualty. Orders for water will get lost, one ($50-plus) wine will be opened with no offer of a taste, while another cheaper bottle is. Bread will come but the oil or butter will be forgotten, even during a relatively calm lunch service. Catch the waiters' eyes, though, and such slips are corrected quickly and with good grace. Regulars put it down as part of the restaurant's charm.
And that's the thing - when Fratelli Paradiso is on song, it really is a very special package, with much more than just charm to its name. This correspondent swore off pumpkin risotto a decade ago, however, Fratelli's version, made with barely cooked fine slivers of pumpkin, still clearly discerned against the grains of just-cooked rice, has me reconsidering the position. A garnish of three zucchini flowers, simply battered and fried takes it to the next level. Lamb ragù really pops in the mouth, full of fresh, meaty flavours, and afflicted by none of the beigeness or tomato-acid overload that mars many dishes of its kind. Ladled over gnocchi alla Romana (the baked cheese-topped Roman semolina gnocchi that's the platonic ideal of the cheesy bake), it makes for dining that will leave you humming all day.
Desserts are good, too. There's quite a bit of chocolate on the menu, and a pretty good tiramisù, but my pick of the recent offerings was a lush, saffron-spiked semifreddo. Better still, there's an impressive selection of Italian cheese and no shortage of good grappe and digestivi.
Fratelli Paradiso is hard to pigeonhole. They pursue the things that interest them, and do most of it well, stopping up the gaps with that brand of panache and sleight of hand so particular to the Italian restaurant game. It's not something best enjoyed passively, but an experience that gives as good as it gets. It's a collaborative work-in-progress, an ongoing project for a group of cooks and waiters, diners and bon viveurs whose preferred medium is the art of having a good time. Bravo.