Blessed be the locals. Coming out of a year in Sydney packed with openings from big names in even bigger dining "precincts", each more crisply branded and heavily pre-sold than the last, there's something deeply pleasurable about pushing through the doors on a place opened by relative unknowns in the 'burbs and finding yourself in a restaurant filled with promise.
Pino's Vino e Cucina might not have a million-dollar fit-out, but money has been spent, time has been taken and taste has been exercised. It's a good-looking room. Sitting on the intersection of two residential streets in Alexandria, it doesn't give much away at first glance. Only the swinging sign, rendered from a linocut designed by local artist Allie Webb, is suggestive of the adventure offered within. It depicts a gentleman of some maturity holding a glass of wine in one hand and a fat cigar in the other, decked out in the waistcoat, bow tie and moustache that are the internationally recognised signifiers of good-time guys everywhere. One thing is clear: Pino's is here for a good time. And that's what Pino's is all about.
Octopus, cannellini and 'nduja.
Down the right-hand side of the dining room runs a richly stocked bar, finished in beautiful timber and gleaming with bottles that say "drink me". On the left lie unclothed tables and a banquette kitted out with nicely seasoned leather. Something about the floorboards, heavy beams, bar stools and all that timber joinery gives it a saloon feel, which somehow clicks with the short, smart Italian menu. Call it spaghetti Western.
The single-sided A4 carte is an admirably concise affair, broken down into eight or so antipasti, a section for pizzicheria (which means delicatessen, more or less, and here translates to the likes of pecorino Sardo, grana padano, Gorgonzola dolce, mortadella, pancetta, sausage and two kinds of prosciutto), six piatti forti (the main courses), three sides and three desserts.
Bar manager Antonello Arzedi.
Co-owner and chef Matteo Margiotta hails from Rome and while his flavours and ingredients often skew southern Italian, the food at Pino's isn't wedded to a particular region. Swordfish is offered as a main course with fennel, watercress and radish, and one of the more impressive antipasto dishes sees a fat octopus tentacle set on cannellini beans and dressed with the spicy, porky goodness of 'nduja, Calabria's hot, brick-red spreadable salumi. Things like risotto balls, panzanella and a whacking great big 850-gram grilled T-bone served with a grilled lemon and listed as a "Fiorentina" are more suggestive of northern Italy, meanwhile, but it's probably more useful to think of the direction as cucina Alexandria.
At its best, the menu just leans summery, fun and winningly simple. A fat bulb of burrata with ribbons of asparagus, peas and broad beans: easy. A low, little glazed terracotta dish holding a farinata, a chickpea-flour pancake golden from the pan, scattered with rings of pickled red onion and ricotta salata - the scant grating of hard, salty sheep's milk cheese bringing the whole thing to life.
Tonnarelli, mussels and herb crumb.
At one point, one of the waiters - who appear uniformly friendly and engaged under the management of the co-owner and superbly Glasgow-accented Diane McDonald - suggests the side of roast potatoes, done with duck fat and truffle oil. This is the first bum note coming from the kitchen for me. What use the chefs have for an artificial and, to my mind, profoundly unappealing product like truffle oil in an otherwise savvy place like this is hard to fathom. Opt for the panzanella instead and you'll get a bowl of lovely summery tomatoes of various hues and flavours, blissfully free of artificial flavourings.
The kitchen sometimes feints at a more modernist take on Italian food. There are several restaurants that do space-age Italian well in Sydney. Nothing I've seen at Pino's leads me to believe this is one of them. The term "coffee gel" neatly undoes any appeal that may lie in a white chocolate-topped tiramisù. Then there's the dish our waiter describes as "tomato not tomato". "Uh-oh," I think, "this isn't promising." On the menu it was just listed fairly innocently as "mozzarella, red capsicum, celery". Not totally auspicious, but my dining buddy that night was unabashedly pro-cheese in all her ordering. Whatever we expected, it wasn't this: pretend tomatoes made of balls of mozzarella shrouded in skins fashioned from roasted red peppers. What a waste of time and effort. Adding insult to injury, the cheese inside is ice-cold, its texture deeply unappealing. The pièce de résistance in this exercise in pointlessness? Tomato stems stuck on top of the "tomatoes". Jesus wept. After a few more desultory prods at them to see if they get better (they don't), we don't bother finishing them. The staff, to their credit, take them off the bill. The mozzarella served with grilled peach and curls of prosciutto, on the other hand, gets wolfed down in seconds.
And then there's the best thing Pino's does: house-made pasta. Out the back the guys have a proper professional-grade pasta extruder, so the menu offers more than the usual hand-rolled and filled stuff.
Tonnarelli, here thick-cut spaghetti, make a juicy partner to a pile of garlicky mussels and fruit-sweet cherry tomatoes, scattered with herby breadcrumbs. The plating is a bit fussy - the shells are fanned out around the noodles, pea shoots plonked needlessly on top - but the flavours are true. Zucchini and lardo complement the nuttiness of spelt trenette, meanwhile, and grains of toasted spelt add a welcome bit of texture. Batons of chive and mint leaves pick out a bright top note. (I'm not sure what's going on with the names of the pasta at Pino's. This one, for instance, they call trenette, but the frilly-edged ribbons, a bit like garters made of pasta for the exacting fetishist, look like mafaldine to me. God only knows what happens when Italians come in for dinner.)
Granizado with strawberry, blueberries and passionfruit.
Desserts run to the fruity and the fluffy and make no attempts at coolness. Granizado translates to a glass of granita, overlaid with whipped cream, strawberry, blueberries and passionfruit - the love child of a pavlova and a granita. No beetroot, no soils, no coriander cress - though the glass I'm served is, I'm weary to report, rimmed with icing sugar. The millefoglie is likewise a gloriously silly over-the-top thing. It's not layers of pastry as the name suggests (millefoglie's French equivalent is the millefeuille), but rather a wide hollow tube piped full of pastry cream and dressed with pistachio, cherry and diced kiwifruit. Fun fact: Italy is the second biggest producer of kiwifruit in the world, after China. All that's missing is the doily.
Chef and co-owner Matteo Margiotta, co-owner Diane McDonald and bar manager Antonello Arzedi
Wine and cocktails come from an aesthetic universe that knows no doilies and brooks no kiwis. Italy represents about half the cellar, the remainder split between France and Australia, most of it sold for under $80 a bottle. It's approachable, but quietly subversive. There's sav blanc by the glass, but it's a Chapter from the Yarra Valley, made with a bit of skin contact. The chardonnay is from Rome, while the vermentino and Montepulciano are made in the Riverland in South Australia. The beer list is even more wilful: lager is from Sardinia, the wheat beer from Piedmont. One of the Australian offerings, a pale ale, is called Bastard Son, while another, a golden ale, goes by the winning name of Fuck the Rent.
Bar manager Antonello Arzedi has done a superb job with the cocktail list, which is full of intrigue. Just how does panettone feature in his 25th Bellini alongside rum and moscato? And when can I make time to pull up a stool and try the tequila, amaro and grapefruit number he calls a Piñata? I can say that the Americanello, which introduces pomegranate juice and a herbal house-made soda into the classic mix of Campari and vermouth, is a welcome twist on the Americano. In the light-and-fresh department, there's also the Reverse Sake, which combines sake and a matcha tea syrup to refreshing effect in a glass filled with crushed ice, swaddled with hessian and fragrant with yuzu. Arzedi's glassware is as impeccable as his patter. All his ice is cut by hand, and luscious treasures of the distillate world glitter and beckon from the back bar, making this very much a place to visit for the drinks in their own right.
The Little Italy cocktail.
In fact, that's probably the best way to approach Pino's - not so much as a restaurant or a place focused on dining as a place to hang out and have a few drinks, more a great bar that happens to have a more substantial menu than most. A few people have eagerly asked me if it's Sydney's answer to Melbourne's splendid pasta bar Tipo 00. To be frank, it's not. But once the kitchen recognises that pasta and robust flavours are where its strengths lie and jettisons the less-convincing modernist frills it could be. For now, though, Pino's is the romantic, likeable local you wish was your own. And that's no bad thing.