Here's a thing: just about every restaurant in Australia does vitello tonnato wrong. Slices of veal topped with a tuna mayonnaise? Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 lire. Tonnato doesn't mean "tuna" - that's "tonno" - it means tuna-like. It's a reference to the preserved-tuna texture the poached veal is supposed to have once it's spent a day or two luxuriating in the sauce. It's not pretty, which is probably why most chefs think they're doing you a favour by reinventing it, but in doing so they're robbing you of the pleasures of its true feel and flavour.
But I've just found someone who gets it right. Who says "contemporary mores be damned" and serves the veal in all its gloopy, faintly fishy splendour, layered with slivers of lemon and a healthy scattering of capers. A thing of joy.
Which tiny backstreet osteria is flying the flag for Piemontese classics? Which nonna is keeping it real? That intimate, 200-seat osteria is called Rosetta, set in the quiet village of Wynyard, and the nonna in question goes by the name of Neil Perry.
Head chef Richard Purdue and Neil Perry
Straight Italian food done well in a handsome setting is hard to find in Sydney. It's surprising, really, when you consider that it's pretty much all half the city wants to eat when it goes out for lunch or dinner. Alessandro Pavoni, Giovanni Pilu and Federico Zanellato, the top-rated Italian-born chefs in the city, remix their traditions with smoke, coconut and kombu. It's not just the new guard, either. Buon Ricordo, that bastion of cucina vera, scatters raw kingfish with crystals made of dehydrated Campari, and there's puffed brown rice on the spatchcock at Lucio's.
It's tasty stuff, to be sure. But what if you don't feel like "textures of mushroom" or "miso-strone"? What if you don't want macadamia nuts in your brodo?
Potato gnocchi with oxtail ragù
Neil Perry has the answer. Having been road-tested thoroughly in Melbourne, Rosetta has landed in Sydney as an instant hit. The business crowd, so thoroughly in thrall to Rockpool Bar & Grill, pack it out, devouring cacciatora-style duck, chicken cooked under a brick, and a very polished eggplant parm at lunch, clinking Spritzes on the terrace over plates of burrata with grilled treviso, and then stepping back inside to split a nice big veal cotoletta on the bone and punch another bottle of Barbaresco for dinner.
This is food that's about satisfaction rather than surprises. Poached artichokes are scattered with almonds, olives and mercifully little else. Baby snapper is grilled whole, coming to the table beautifully juicy, dressed with oregano-fragrant salmoriglio, the salsa Sicilians love to pair with seafood.
Pasta, made in house, is consistently impressive, whether it's twists of strozzapreti swimming in a pungent, powerfully salty sauce of pecorino and pepper, butter-bathed agnolotti plump with roast pheasant, veal and pork, or curls of garganelli and squid in a sauce vibrant with bottarga and tomato.
Burrata, grilled treviso and olive oil
It's easy to spend money at Rosetta. Those pasta dishes mostly hover around the $30 mark for what the waiters describe as an entrée portion. The veal cutlet, served with a cheek of lemon, a tuft of rocket and a smile is $49. The wine list offers plenty of choice in the $100 a bottle and up department, and I've been charged $21 for a glass of Lucido catarratto, an eminently drinkable and versatile white from Sicilian producer Marco De Bartoli. It retails for $35 a bottle.
But it's mostly money well spent. The place looks a million dollars - a modern, boisterous, glamorous beast of a thing, glinting with gold highlights, marble and timber, staggered over three levels thrown open to plenty of glass. There's roughly 36,000 staff on the floor and the Rockpool veterans among them actually know what they're doing. Jade Temple, Perry's first restaurant opening following his move into the hedge fund-backed Rockpool Dining Group, was fairly wobbly off the blocks, both in terms of service and food, but Rosetta has hit the ground running.
And some of the best things on the menu are the least expensive. The trippa alla Romana surrenders to the fork, a little more tomato-acidic than would be ideal, but nicely framed by the taste of pecorino and mint. Oh, and it's $19. At first sight pizzette might seem a little bit naff and off-brand for a restaurant like this - like the company is doing R&D on a food-court Rosetta-lite spin off (Rosetta-ette? Nonna Neil's?). But the toppings are smart: a bianca-style with broad beans, say, or another done with smoked garlic sausage from master butcher Pino Tomini Foresti. Sink your teeth into the Inferno, a spicy eight-incher with chilli salumi, a puffy crust and rounds of pickled yellow pepper scattered across it, and your scepticism evaporates. And it's $12.
If you're watching your purse, you could have the $5 cannolo for dessert - small, crisp shell of chocolate pastry piped with mascarpone mousse. But that would mean forgoing the torta di Verona, the thinking person's tiramisù, served here as a creamy wodge of pandoro soaked in amaretto and Marsala with blueberry compote.
Torta di Verona
Barely weeks old, Rosetta already feels like a fixture of the Sydney dining scene - in the best of ways. The size of its menu invites exploration, but its plating is confident enough in its simplicity that it never wants for comfort. The corporate heart of the city might be the last place you'd expect to find a touch of soul, but Rosetta gets it right.