Were you a fan of the distinctive take Dan Pepperell put on Italian food when he was chef at 10 William St? Us too. Which makes the news that he's getting back into the spaghetti business all the more exciting. Anton and Stefan Forte, owners of two-star Restaurant Hubert, have teamed up with their Swillhouse Group colleague Toby Hilton to take over the Sydney CBD ristorante formerly known as Berta and open a modern-day enoteca that they have dubbed Alberto.
Pepperell will be executive chef across both venues and plans to be hands-on at the new venture for its first several months. Alberto doesn't open till November, and Pepperell is yet to start testing the menu in any detail, but says he's playing around with the likes of oysters acqua pazza, tonnarelli Amatriciana, celeriac lasagne with a dose of Indian spice, bistecca grilled over apple wood, a play on pani ca' meusa, the famed spleen sandwich of Palermo, and just for good measure, a Yakult gelato.
Anton Forte says the food brief he put to Dan Pepperell was not particularly prescriptive: do Italian food. "He's so passionate about it, I don't need to tell him what to do," Forte says. "As good as he is at French food, Italian is what he's all about."
As Swillhouse extends its restaurant business (its roots being in the landmark Sydney bars Shady Pines, The Baxter Inn and Frankie's), the roles of Hubert's manager Anthony Moore and its sommelier, Andy Tyson, will broaden to cover the new eatery (and quite probably more to come).
Forte's brief to Tyson for the wine was not dissimilar to the food concept: do Italian wine. "It'll be a bit more natural. Hubert is about 10 per cent natural; this will be more like a quarter," he says. "But we're going to have plenty of Barolo, Barbaresco, and lots of back-vintage stuff."
Likewise, Allie Webb, the Sydney artist behind the graphics for the other Swillhouse venues, is handling all the creative. "She's doing vintage signage out the front, and then out the back, where the mural is, she wants to do a massive surrealist streetscape."
Forte says he was a big fan of Berta in its heyday, and doesn't want to change its essential layout, but plans to soften the room's harder edges and punishing acoustics. "We want to make it more intimate – dark chocolate carpeting, cosy booths, and it'll be stacked with working wine storage. A buzzy, warm, '60s Italian Fellini kind of vibe."
The brothers Forte have Sicilian heritage on their father's side, while their mother comes from Venetian and Abruzzese stock. But don't expect them to be pushing Forte family recipes too literally. "My Nonna on my mum's side was an awesome cook," says Anton. "She was from a town up on the Austrian border, so she made polenta, lots of long-cooked dishes, tortellini in brodo. But it's more our style to say 'hey, my Nonna used to do this really mad dish – Dan, can you do something with it?' and just see what happens."
Forte's move into Italian restaurants comes as his former business partner and Swillhouse co-founder, Jason Scott, who left the business in mid-2018, prepares to open an Italian restaurant of his own with former Icebergs chef Robert Marchetti – a substantially larger venue in Manhattan's Nolita neighbourhood. In either case, it's a long way from pouring shots out of a taxidermy hoof at a bar made from a recycled high-school gym floor.
"Isn't that a trip?" says Forte.
Alberto, 17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, NSW.