Love has a name, and it's pappardelle con ragù di vitella e maggiorana. Plainly translated, that's strips of pasta with a sauce of veal and marjoram. In the flesh, it's a more sensual arrangement of superb silken ribbons sauced with a herby braise of White Rocks veal shin. So far so awesome, but then there's the coup de grace: a section of roasted veal shin bone set beside the lush heap of pasta. This isn't one of those restaurants where the waiters tell you how and in which order to eat what's on your plate, so I winged it and dug the marrow out of the hollow of the bone and tossed it through the already buttery pappardelle: bliss.
Properly made fresh pasta is a rarer and more precious resource than you might guess. When it's good, it's good. When it's great, it's a table-silencer. I don't know who's making the pasta at Pendolino, but I can tell you they've got a pretty good idea of what they're doing. On a scale of one to Franca Manfredi, I'd give them a seven, and that's something to be proud of. So where is this place? You'd be hard-pressed to stumble upon it by accident, unless you're a devotee of high fashion and handmade shirts. The lovely late-Victorian Strand Arcade, known far more for its boutiques than its food, is its home. Pendolino sits on the George Street end of the second floor (or, in fashion-speak, above Alannah Hill, and hang a left at Alex Perry). A tight configuration of little tables in the arcade itself, overlooking the world of retail goodness and the spangled glass ceiling, it operates as a café by day and a wine bar by night. They make a pretty impressive Tuscan-style salami sandwich, stuffing slices of finocchiata, caciotta cheese, tomato and baby rocket between slices of toasted schiacciata, and their Campari and soda is definitely getting there. (Sydney's best Campari and soda? Pompei's Pizzeria in Bondi, by a mile. The right ratio of hooch to mixer, in a glass only slightly smaller than a 44-gallon drum.)
To your left as you face the restaurant is the olioteca. Owner/chef Nino Zoccali is an olive oil enthusiast, and technically speaking, Pendolino is something of a concept restaurant, incorporating an olive oil gift-store, a small area walled off with shelves of boutique Australian and Italian olive oils, with a communal table running down the middle. A pretty enough room, if a little larder-like, it doubles as an annex to the café and a private dining room. If you love olive oil, it'll fascinate you. If you're more interested in the restaurant, you can step through door number two. Walking past the open kitchen, you're met by a stand of massive oil bottles. Black-carpeted and darkened by the ever-closed Venetian blinds, it's a dim, discreet space, large enough to feel airy, but packed closely enough with tables to hold some buzz. The ceiling is painted olive-dun, and the half-silvered light bulbs sprout from olive-leaf metalwork. The menu lists under each dish the oil used in its preparation where you might normally see a wine suggestion but that's as far as the concept is pushed. Phew.
Zoccali is best known to the hungry people of Sydney as one of Otto's early Terzini-era chefs. The menu he offers at Pendolino isn't a million miles from that Otto style, either - top-dollar proteins (such as that wonderful White Rocks veal from Perth's inimitable Vince Garreffa), cooked and sauced in a relatively straightforward fashion in a setting of edited Italian flavours. The prosciutto "bianco e rosso" is how you'll want to kick things off: the rosso is prosciutto from San Daniele, all lithe curls and deep hues, while prosciutto bianco turns out to be a euphemism for lard - pork fat cured locally in the manner of the celebrated lardo of Tuscany's Colonnata. With rosemary-scented grissini and crisp Sardinian flatbread, it's as natural a partner for a glass of wine as you'll find. Ravioli di magro alla Napoletana is a very trad dish of round pasta parcels of spinach, parmo, Gruyère and buffalo mozzarella topped with tiny basil leaves (with Kailis 2007 extra virgin from WA). They're brought to the table with a very non-trad show of Nap sauce poured from a jug by the waiter. It's cute.
Another entrée sees wild-caught king prawns (size-wise they're more like prince prawns, or dukes) on a coarse purée of grilled red peppers (and Fruttato Allegro 2007 extra virgin). The wisdom of serving hot things on cold things that suck the heat out of them eludes me, but the addition of calamarettini - I'm assuming that's Italian for 'tiny wee squid' - is smart. If there's a sweeter, more tender piece of squid in this town, I'd like to see it.
The vego option - a 'Garafagna-style' salad of cannellini beans, farro, truffled Tuscan pecorino and baby herbs dressed with Nebbiolo vinegar - works nicely as a $19 side. As an entrée, I'm not convinced. The vego main is more like it. Mozzarella in carrozza here is a sandwich of lovely buffalo mozzarella and parmesan, pan-fried and set on a plate with some slow-cooked San Marzano tomatoes and a sauté of porcini and chestnut mushrooms. A $27 cheese sandwich or a parade of bright tastes and lush textures? Perspective is everything.
Beyond the pasta (and please, let's revisit that veal and pappardelle for a moment; wow), the main course is often where Italian food loses its appeal in Australian restaurants. Not so at Pendolino, where the pendulum swings between authentic simplicity and contemporary interest. Pairing Kurobuta pork belly, roasted with fennel and rosemary until it's well rendered, with cotechino sausage will earn the kitchen the adoration of meat lovers, and the bed of fennel and orange salad dressed with an unusual blood orange-infused extra virgin (Agrumato Sanguinella, Victoria 2007) keeps things clean. On a lighter note, the dried black olive sauce that accompanies a couple of chargrilled quails breakdancing on a lump of slow-cooked, slightly powdery potato, is a minor masterpiece (Joseph First Run extra virgin, 2008), as is the anchovy and garlic dressing on the side of beans.
Among the desserts, orange blossom and pistachio panna cotta with mandarin, lemon and blood orange sorbets is a triumph of menu-writing over execution - where is the scent of orange blossom? But the affogato di mele verdi, though it's presented in a cocktail glass (confidential to aspiring restaurateurs: Martinis, Margaritas and Manhattans only, please), with its green apples in fresh, dried, jelly and granita forms, all topped with a splash of Bella Vista cuvée sparkling, is quite beautiful.
We're here fairly early in the piece, and the service is at times a comedy of orders going astray, wines being absent and the timing being out of whack, but it's clear nonetheless that the team on the floor is both capable and charismatic. If the teething problems aren't largely resolved by now, I'll be surprised.
Pendolino is a find. A serious Italian restaurant in the city with more than a dash of élan and fun. The food is accomplished, interesting and sincere, and the other trappings are well on the way to being there, too. It's a restaurant that's going to grow and flourish with our custom and patronage, so let's slip up there and make it our own. Love is not love, after all, which alters when it alteration finds.