Blessed be the locals. Coming out of a year in Sydney packed with openings from big names in even bigger dining "precincts", 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 in Alexandria might not have a million-dollar fit-out, but money has been spent, time has been taken and taste has been exercised. Down the right-hand side of the dining room runs a richly stocked bar, finished in beautiful timber joinery and gleaming with bottles that say "drink me". Down the left are tables and a banquette kitted out with nicely seasoned leather. Something about the floorboards, heavy beams, bar stools and all that timber gives it a saloon feel, which somehow clicks with the short, smart Italian menu. Call it spaghetti Western.
Tonarelli with mussels and cherry tomatoes.
The single-sided A4 carte is broken down into eight antipasti, a section for pizzicheria (which means delicatessen, more or less, and here translates to cold cuts and cheese), six piatti forti (the main courses), three sides and two desserts.
Chef Matteo Margiotta's flavours and ingredients skew southern-Italian - the spicy, porky goodness of 'nduja with octopus in one antipasto, swordfish, fennel and radish offered as a main course - but there are also things like risotto balls, panzanella, and a whacking great big grilled T-bone listed as a "Fiorentina" that are more suggestive of the north.
Interior. (Photo by Ben Simpson)
Mostly the menu just leans summery, fun and winningly simple. A fat bulb of burrata with ribbons of asparagus, peas and pea greens: 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.
At one point one of the waiters (who appear uniformly friendly and engaged under the management of the superbly Glasgow-accented Diane McDonald) suggests the side of roast potatoes, done with duck fat and truffle oil. This is perhaps the one 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.
Spelt trenette with zucchini, lardo and mint.
Back to the good: the house-made pasta. Tonarelli, here thick-cut spaghetti, make a juicy partner to a pile of garlicky mussels and fruit-sweet cherry tomatoes, while zucchini and lardo complement the nuttiness of spelt trenette, with grains of toasted spelt for texture, chives and leaves of mint picking out a bright top-note. (They call it trenette, I should add, but the frilly-edged ribbons, a bit like garters made of pasta for the exacting fetishist, look like mafaldine to me.)
The millefoglie is 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. All that's missing is the doily.
Wine and cocktails come from an aesthetic universe that knows no doilies. 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.
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. Arzedi's glassware is impeccable, and all his ice is cut by hand, making this very much a place to visit for the drinks in their own right.
Pino's: the likeable local you wish was your own. If this is the direction in which 2017 is headed, things are looking up.
Pino's Vino e Cucina, 199 Lawrence St, Alexandria, NSW, (02) 9550 2789. Dinner and drinks from 5pm-12pm Tue-Sat, 5pm-10pm Sun.