Restaurant News

The new wave Italian(ish) restaurants that are breaking all the rules

Indian-spiced trippa alla Romana, yuzu risotto, vegan cacio e pepe. The latest wave of restaurant openings is Italian, but not as you know it.

By Larissa Dubecki
Don Peppino's
Ah, the rules – the endless rules – of Italian food. No milky coffee after breakfast; no parmesan with seafood pasta; al dente, always; and keep your hands off the bread until the food arrives, you imbecille. And let us not forget all the produce-driven pieties. The pasta makers in their dusty white shrouds of tipo "00" flour. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), the Opus Dei of pizza, flexing its might all the way to the New World.
Say what you like about Italian food's countless orthodoxies, they've gone a long way to keep it safe from the creative efforts of chefs eager to make their mark. Yet here we are, staring down a giddy year that has turned the verities of Italian food into a game of free association. Featuring star players such as an Indian-spiced trippa alla Romana and a Chinese Bolognese pizza, all bets are off as the third wave of Italian food crests without threatening to break.
Alberto's Lounge Photo: Daniel Boud
From Alberto's Lounge in Sydney (home of that tripe) to Leonardo's Pizza Palace in Melbourne (home of that pizza), the most exciting openings of the past 12 months are Italian, with varying degrees of -ish. Menus have veered from classic to outré and all ports in between at Sydney's Don Peppino's, Bella Brutta, Bistecca, Mary's Pizzeria and Matteo Downtown, and in Melbourne at Di Stasio Città, Pentolina and Capitano. Even Melbourne vegan temple Smith & Daughters has gone Italian, with chef Shannon Martinez dishing the faux on fritto misto, melon and prosciutto panzanella, and cacio e pepe.

You pretty much know Italian food is having a moment when Sydney's Swillhouse Group (the blokes responsible for Restaurant Hubert, The Baxter Inn and Frankie's Pizza) get behind it. Daniel Pepperell may have won kudos for his Italian-inflected menu at 10 William St, but he's the very mark of a modern chef who has traipsed through the envelope-pushing kitchens of Oscillate Wildly, Attica and New York's Momofuku Ssäm Bar, picking up a grab-bag of French and Asian tricks along the way.
That trippa alla Romana is really a child of the world, the result of a trip to Paris during which Pepperell noted the abundance of bistros adding Indian hints to their food. It's gently spiced with fenugreek, garam masala and cardamom, and rich with cream, and Pepperell describes it as "almost like butter chicken, only with tripe and guanciale and pecorino". The tripe is the outlier, however, for a take on Italian that mostly dresses up its new tracks with a traditional face.
Alberto's Lounge's trippa alla Romana Photo: Will Horner
"Generally, at Alberto's it looks Italian, it tastes Italian, but there's a lot of little things we do that aren't Italian. With the octopus, for example, we serve a fava bean purée that's cooked out with loads of kombu, just upping the umami where we can."
It is, he acknowledges, not the kind of thing your average Puglian trattoria would serve. But in other ways it's faithful to the Italian diktat of using what's available here and now. "Being authentic Italian is using what's around you. Authentic Italian in Sydney could be using local ricotta made in Marrickville, tomatoes grown in the Blue Mountains."
And cop this, AVPN pizza masters: "I reckon the exporters make up those rules about only using San Marzano tomatoes and all the rest, so they sell their products here."
From left: Alberto's Lounge's Allie Webb, Stefan Forte, Dan Pepperell (standing), Toby Hilton, Anton Forte. Photo: Daniel Boud
Italian restaurants have been a comforting certainty in Australian dining life since mass migration in the 1950s and '60s. In a nation where a million people claim Italian descent, our relationship with food from the 20 regions that make up The Boot has until recently been a fairly uncomplicated, nostalgia-soaked love affair. But there comes a time in every cuisine's life when it has to make its own way in the world, subject to the whims of chefs with less regard for its iron-clad traditions than its native-born sons and daughters.
The shibboleths binding Italian food to the quasi-mystical realm of the Piedmontese nonna's kitchen are disappearing, thanks to chefs like Capitano's Casey Wall. Fun fact: before opening in Melbourne's Carlton last year, he'd never visited Italy. The North Carolina native instead tipped his hat to the Italian-American food scene of north-east United States, especially his beloved New York red-sauce joints.
"Italian-American food is completely different to Italian food, but just as delicious," says Wall. "In a way what we're doing at Capitano is Australian-Italian food based out of a whole different region of Italy known as New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey."

Wall was more or less an Italian cleanskin when the first three-cheese pizza emerged from Capitano's stone-floored electric oven with a fat, blistered crust and plenty of flex in its broad fermented-sourdough base.
"I had never worked in an Italian restaurant before Capitano," he says. "I'd never made pasta before, never made pizza in any restaurants. All my reference points were amazing Italian-American joints you find in America, especially New York pizza, which doesn't really happen here."
See also: Capitano's veal parmigiana, the much talked-about bone-in behemoth covered in pizza sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves that feeds two. One of the best-known examples of an "Italian dish" in America, veal parmigiana is a telling example of what historian Eric Hobsbawm dubbed "the invention of tradition". While Sicily was the home of eggplant parmigiana, the dish came about when Italian immigrants to the US, typically from impoverished towns in the country's south, embraced their new prosperity in food form.
"The comically large meatball was another direct result of the ease of affording the food they'd previously seen only rich people eat," explains Wall. "It was a bit like the American dream: 'We can afford meat now, and we're going to eat it'."
Capitano's veal parmigiana. Photo: Ben Dearnley
So what of Aussie-Italian traditions? Have we, like the Americans, sprouted off from the evolutionary tree to create our own readily definable cuisine, or are we stuck in a netherworld, peddling an ersatz version of Italian that requires an invisible set of inverted commas?
Michael Harden, GT's Victoria editor and the author of Lygon Street: Stories and Recipes from Melbourne's Melting Pot, says the culinary landscape would be radically poorer without the influence of Italian immigrants who asserted themselves boldly into their new home, despite the produce-led deprivations that saw olive oil sold only in chemists (as a health tonic) until the mid-1960s. Melbourne in particular, due to its concentration of Italian migrants in Carlton, found it was economically viable for local restaurant owners to serve Italian food that didn't need to be "Australianised" as it was elsewhere in the country.
"Non-Italian Melburnians learnt to eat Italian food that was close to the dishes being served in homes in Italy, albeit with some necessary improvisations ingredient-wise," says Harden. "The other interesting thing about Carlton's Italian community was that they came from a lot of different regions and so the type of dishes being served reflected their origins in Veneto or Calabria or Sicily or Piedmont. The offer was more diverse than you would find in a single region in Italy at the time. I've spoken to people whose Italian parents or grandparents had never eaten pizza before they arrived in Carlton. So when you're talking Aussie-Italian food I think it's more about a notion of pan-Italian than fusion."

It can be hard to know whether to celebrate or sneer at Lygon Street, Melbourne's Little Italy. Maybe both. A tricolour pioneer, it produced Australia's first pizza house (Toto's, in 1961, still going strong), its first commercial espresso machine (University Café, in 1954) and the first shop selling mozzarella and extra-virgin olive oil (as an edible foodstuff). In its modern incarnation, it has become the wall-to-wall home of identikit restaurants pushing a notion of Italian food highly unlikely to pass muster in Bologna. The hallowed notion of "authenticity" certainly becomes problematic when faced with the classic Aussie-Italian pizza topped with matchstick ham of no fixed address and gassed olives that resemble tap washers.
"There's a bit of a sentimental notion that these cookie-cutter joints on Lygon Street, with their oversized laminated paint-by-numbers menus, are somehow representative of Australian-Italian cooking," says Harden. "That's like saying McDonald's represents American cooking. Many of those places only opened in the '80s and '90s, when zoning laws on a part of Lygon Street were changed. They were there solely for the tourist dollar, with a faux authenticity just like restaurants that cluster around Montmartre in Paris or Greenwich Village in New York. Sure, they tell a story, just not the whole story."

Federica Andrisani, of Hobart's Fico, met her partner, Oskar Rossi, in northern Italy six years ago and sealed their bond over a pitch-perfect pasta pomodoro. "Oskar said that was when he fell in love with me, when I cooked something so simple and so delicious," she says.
It's safe to argue close readings of tradition have had their day when even a Neapolitan native who shudders at Australian pizza ("I'm scared of it") sees no reason not to embrace local ingredients while gently pushing boundaries in dishes such as bug tail carpaccio flavoured with yuzu and seaweed dust.
Some things, of course, remain inviolable. Pasta must be al dente. Risotto must be cooked the right way (laboriously, with lots of elbow grease). Dishes should be a simple collection of three or four ingredients. But Andrisani and Rossi enjoy playing with a bigger toolbox.
"Italian flavour is based on umami. Parmigiana, tomatoes, colatura – the fish sauce made from anchovies – but because we don't always have the same ingredients here it makes sense to find an inspiration from the Japanese flavour profile which is so similar," says Andrisani. "We make a sea urchin risotto with yuzu instead of lemon, and we like to use seaweed for umami flavour in a dish. It's still very traditional, but a little twist with the same flavour profile."
Fico, Hobart. Photo: Oskar Rossi
Their brand of respectful reinvention mirrors the state of play in Italy. The barbarians have stormed the regional citadel, with Roman cacio e pepe journeying south and Sicily trading its pasta alla Norma to the northerners in return. Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana has proved conclusively you can simultaneously enrage your countrymen and women with innovation and be named the best restaurant in the world.
Ironically, the biggest pushback Fico receives comes from diners with Italian heritage. "The third-generation Italians who grew up in Australia are the least open to our food," says Andrisani. "They really have no idea, because they grew up with their mums cooking the worst Italian food. They see what we do and get all upset and we have to try to explain it to them. Sometimes it's a battle you can't win."
It's a battle worth fighting, nonetheless. Or at least discussing vigorously over spaghetti Bolognese, that beloved Esperanto dish of unknown origins, with an umami-giving slosh of fish sauce. Almost anything goes in this brave new Aussie-American-Italian world – just so long as you don't overcook the pasta.
"Of course you're going to see some interesting things when people from all sorts of backgrounds start opening Italian restaurants," says Casey Wall. "Not just people whose names end in vowels."

Where to find new-wave Italian restaurants

The neon-lit staircase at Don Peppino's Photo: Harriet Davidson

SYDNEY

Don Peppino's
Warm bread loaded with garlic butter. Pasta from the extruder. Lemon halves filled with lemon sorbet. What's old is new again at this pop-up made (semi) permanent in an old nightclub on Oxford
Street from the Full Circle collective. Half-Negronis all round, please.
1 Oxford St, Paddington, (02) 9326 9302, donpeppinos.com.au
Bella Brutta
Luke Powell (LP's Quality Meats)
has gone from smoker to woodfired oven at his Newtown pizzeria where the puffy, scorched pizza bases are either served with a tin of DIY anchovies, loaded with pepperoni from LP's or ramped up with surf clams and velouté. Italian sensibility with rock 'n' roll attitude.
135 King St, Newtown, (02) 9922 5941, bellabrutta.com.au
Totti's
"Mediterranean" was the brief, but "good times" might be the better label. How else to describe sitting alfresco surrounded by olive trees and tearing into woodfired bread to go with plates of 'nduja, ricotta, olives and any other snack you can think of. Mike Eggert and Khan Danis follow it up with meats from the wood grill, lamb ragù pappardelle, and Neapolitan ice-cream sandwiches to finish.
283 Bondi Rd, Bondi, (02) 9114 7371, merivale.com
Alberto's Lounge
The team from Restaurant Hubert bring it above ground in the former Berta site in Surry Hills with chef Daniel Pepperell doing that Italianish thing he does so well. Meaning classic when he wants (spaghetti pomodoro, perhaps) and not-so-classic the rest of the time (tripe cooked like butter chicken). Andy Tyson backs it up with a bold and beautiful wine list.
17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, albertoslounge.com
Mary's Pizzeria
A New York-style pizza base topped, carbonara-style with parmesan cream and cured egg yolks, the crusts painted with bacon fat. Or a vegan supreme on a thick, square Detroit-style base. Mary's goes both ways, tucked into a candlelit side room of The Lansdowne hotel. Unexpected and unexpectedly exceptional.
The Lansdowne, 2-6 City Rd, Chippendale, 0434 816 430, thelansdownepub.com.au
Leonardo's Pizza Palace. Photo: Mikkel Vang

MELBOURNE

Italian Artisans
Tony Nicolini of DOC fame is behind this southside pizza joint that, true to name, focuses on artisan Italian produce and minimal-intervention Italian wine. There are four takes on Margherita, the finest antipasto in the 'hood and classic cannoli some might argue is worth the trip alone.
135 Victoria Ave, Albert Park, (03) 9690 7960, italianartisans.com.au
Leonardo's Pizza Palace
The reinvention of a long-time Carlton landmark successfully melds a hipster-bar vibe with no-nonsense Aussie/American-Italian flavours, sometimes given a fusion spin. There's Chinese Bolognese or ham-and-pineapple pizza alongside Caprese salad and prosciutto melon. More coherent than it sounds.
29 Grattan St, Carlton, (03) 9242 0666, leonardospizzapalace.com.au
Capitano
Casey Wall (Bar Liberty) has refined his childhood memories of the "red sauce" Italian restaurants in New York at this terrazzo-floored homage in Carlton. NY-style pizza, vodka sauce, meatballs and veal parmigiana are rendered with precision and care. Nostalgia free of sentimentality.
421 Rathdowne St, Carlton, (03) 9134 8555, capitano.com.au
Fico's venison cappelli del prete all Genovese. Photo: Luke Burgess

HOBART

Fico
Frederica Andrisani and Oskar Rossi are cooking some of the best modern Italian food in the country right now in their modest restaurant in Hobart's CBD. Brilliant pasta, great local produce (including sea urchins plucked from the sea mere hours before serving), a dash of Japanese influence and great finesse explain the buzz.
151a Macquarie St, Hobart, (03) 6245 3391, ficofico.net