Maybe I missed a memo. I'm the only one at Sotto Sopra wearing socks. I'd noticed that the floor staff, Italians who were otherwise resplendent in navy aprons over striped white tees, were all showing skin between the rolled cuffs of their jeans and their shoes. But upon further observation it transpires that it's not just the waiters - everyone else here at lunch on a sunny Saturday is wearing a sandal, thong, loafer, slip-on or some variation on the theme, a perfectly Newport mix of K Jacques, Nike, Gucci and Billabong, with nary a shed of socking between them.
Is this the natural outcome when Italy meets the northern beaches of Sydney? Think of the possibilities. It could've been Fellini-esque dwarfs walking through a dream sequence in Home and Away, a flotilla of mahogany speedboats on Pittwater, or Anita Ekberg stepping into the Dee Why ocean pool in full evening dress. Meanwhile, we have a lot of tanned ankle.
King prawns with lemon, paprika and garlic.
Tanned ankle, and some of the most interesting and polished Italian food in Australia. And garlic bread. It's a measure of how well Alessandro Pavoni, a northern beaches local of some years' standing, reads his market. He throws around a bit of fennel pollen, a few chicken livers and other cool things that, if we're being perfectly honest, are going to be a challenge to get the kids to eat after a morning down the beach, but at the same time he crams the menu with easy wins. That could be chicken cacciatora given a lively infusion of peppers, sage, capers, green olive and cherry tomato, a whacking great T-bone grilled for two, or nice big king prawns, shell off but head on, roasted in a skillet with an abundance of sliced lemon, parsley leaves, a few rounds of red chilli and a dusting of paprika.
But back to the garlic bread, you say? The version here is a beautifully risen quartet of golden rolls speckled with semolina. They have none of that hot stink of classic garlic bread - the kitchen doesn't slather them with raw garlic, infusing the garlic in the buns themselves. They're as herby as they are garlicky, probably because the chefs crisp up some oregano, marjoram and rosemary in burnt-garlic butter and pour it over the bread when it comes out of the oven. It's a beautiful thing.
Sotto Sopra's garlic bread.
Sun-dried tomatoes get dragged out of the culinary damnation they've suffered since the 1980s. The kitchen mixes them into a dazzling Sicilian-style almond pesto that, along with a grazing of ricotta salata, makes marshmallow-like nubs of gnocchi dance and sing on the plate.
The 49-seat dining room is in a building curving around the corner of Barrenjoey Road and The Boulevarde, the curve of its glass commanding 270-degree views of a strip of the highway that features the Newport 7-Eleven, a shiny new beer bar from Manly brewers 4 Pines, and a restaurant that advertises "Indian cuisine with a French influence". The look takes in elements both marine and industrial. The floor is polished concrete, some of the tables are made of pipe and topped with steel; others are finished with tile or timber. The hard surfaces are softened by jaunty, tea towel-like cloth napkins and plump cushions on the timber banquettes. The plates, fashioned by Malcolm Greenwood, the Mosman potter whose work enlivens tables everywhere from Bentley and Firedoor to Southern Ocean Lodge, have a sinuous grace you'll want to fondle. For all the reflective surfaces, the noise is managed well, and there's none of the din of Via Alta, the trattoria Pavoni, his wife, Anna, and their partners run in Willoughby.
The ceiling is double height, and the kitchen sits on a mezzanine overlooking the tables. This is where the Sotto Sopra part comes in - it's Italian for upside-down. The site is on a flood plain, and to secure planning permission, Pavoni and his partners apparently had to put all the operational stuff well above the notional waterline. Even the powerpoints in the dining room are set five feet off the ground. What this means for all the restaurants on the other side of the street that have their kitchens situated in the usual way I'm not sure, but given that Pavoni's flagship restaurant, Ormeggio, sits on the waterline at the marina at The Spit in Mosman, hedging bets on climate change might not be such a whacky idea.
Pavoni calls Sotto Sopra a wood-fired trattoria, and it sells an approachable conviviality, with diners gathering around food that's gutsy and full-flavoured but far from ham-fisted. It's all about being clever and interesting rather than tricky or fiddly. The most precious thing on the menu is probably the battuta.
In Piedmont, it's a dish of hand-cut raw veal dressed with olive oil and lemon; in Newport, the pale diced meat is given more of a seaside feel, with hits of brine coming from caper leaves, a splash of colatura di alici (Italy's answer to fish sauce) and an emulsion enriched with sea urchin roe. A few croûtons bring the crunch. It's neither wood-fired nor especially reminiscent of any trattoria in the traditional sense, but it's pretty damned sharp. A similar style is at play with the tuna carpaccio - pink petals of raw albacore draped over burrata, the creamy cheese complementing the texture of the fish. Bottarga, scraped into yolk-bright curls rather than shaved into dust, provides the seasoning and a welcome layer of depth.
These things and more are explained with patient care by a young and smart floor team. Gianmarco Giovi, a personable young fella from the coast of Tuscany, is standout, his dashing manner betraying his stage training. A former child actor he may be, but his knowledge of the menu and the style Pavoni and Sotto Sopra head chef Mattia Rossi (a fellow alumnus of Pavoni's Ormeggio and Chiosco, also in Mosman) bring to their cooking is by no means make-believe.
Sotto Sopra also has one of the most interesting wine lists on the peninsula. Barring the house wines made in Australia for Pavoni, the range is 100 per cent Italian. With something in the vicinity of a dozen whites and a dozen reds, the offer by the glass is exceptional, while the bottle list holds such gems as the dangerously drinkable Paltrinieri Lambrusco, or Crescendo, a white wine made with pigato grapes grown on the Ligurian Riviera at cult biodynamic winery Selvadolce, listed here, appropriately enough, in a section marked Complex and Interesting. It might be overselling things to say the eggplant parmigiana is complex. But it's certainly interesting. A perfect cross-section of eggplant, the flesh rendered pliant in the wood-fired oven, a very little San Marzano tomato on top visible through a pool of melted smoked cheddar. The master stroke? Five little mint leaves, a drizzle of basil oil and (sorry, vegetarians) a hint of that brilliant Italian fish sauce.
Vegetarians not quite dietarily flexible enough to fall prey to the charms of the not-quite-vegetarian eggplant will be won over by the caramelised endive tart - witlof made soft and tart-sweet on a base of finely layered flaky pastry. Daubed with sour cream and dusted with malt, it works as an entrée or a main course, and I'd give serious consideration to ordering it as a dessert if I hadn't managed to work it into the meal elsewhere. It's a thing of beauty.
Caramelised endive tart.
The oven also brings the magic to John Dory. It's presented in a manner faintly reminiscent of the way they plate it at Bennelong, the head and tail trimmed, but the fish left otherwise intact, roasted on the bone for maximum succulence, carpeted with a garnish of big capers, finely cut shallot and brown butter. It brings a pleasing sweet sourness that the discerning Italophile might call agrodolce.
If you're the sort of person who likes to come to restaurants to find things to complain about, apart from the uninterrupted views of Barrenjoey Road traffic and activity, you might choose to find fault with the not-quite-perfect coherence of the design, and the mild inclination on the part of some staff to go the hard sell. I've also been served a leaf salad that was crushed under the weight of its seasoning, and a steak that was a lot more medium than a medium-rare steak ought to be - but it was an otherwise beautifully handled piece of meat, with a good crust and plenty of juice and flavour, complemented neatly by the piquancy of a rocket mayonnaise.
If you're the kind of person who goes to restaurants to dine well and have fun, none of these things will prove insurmountable. There's enough vigour on the floor to sustain the momentum, and the central fact of the excellence of the food and drink at Sotto Sopra goes a long way to generating goodwill and sending everyone out making plans to come back to explore the rest of the menu.
I, for instance, have to come back for the tiramisù al cucchiaio. It's a tiramisù made in a large portion, spooned out for happy diners at the table from the - get this - custom-made Malcolm Greenwood tiramisù bowl. So far I've seen the bowl (coming soon to a bridal registry near you) and eyeballed the tiramisù, but I am yet to peek under its luxuriant blanket of cocoa because I was led to believe that to order anything for dessert other than the mango tart would be a strategic error. Roasted for two in another of those heavy iron skillets, it's like so many things here, burnished a lovely caramel on the outside and hot and giving on the inside. The pastry is nothing short of excellent, the molten mangoes, topped with a scoop of lime sorbet, nothing short of ravishing. I regret nothing.
Caramelised mango tart with lime sorbet.
More ambitious than Via Alta, more fully realised than Chiosco and more fun (and less expensive) than Ormeggio, Sotto Sopra is the sort of restaurant you can't wait to share with friends. That Anna and Alessandro Pavoni are more interested in raising the stakes in their own backyard rather than decamping south of the bridge makes them more than ever a credit to their neighbourhood, while the quality and verve of the food, the vigour of the service and the focus of the wine list are a win not just for Newport but also for Sydney as a whole, socked or otherwise. Upside-down? Maybe. On the up? No question.