When Daniel Pepperell was leading the kitchen at 10 William St in Sydney's east, he put his own stamp on Italian cooking, quietly testing its boundaries while staying true to the fundamentals. Diners embraced ragù enriched with a slug of fish sauce and sardine katsu slipped between pieces of white bread. Emboldened, Pepperell put a tripe special on the menu. Not one person ordered it.
What a difference a few years make.
Since Alberto's Lounge opened in a quiet alleyway in Sydney late last year, the kitchen has served up to 20 portions of tripe a night. Pepperell even mentions a regular who orders it for lunch once a week. "He sits at the bar and has that," he says. "A bowl of trippa alla Romana and a salad."
Alberto's braised tripe isn't what you'd call typical alla Romana. Yes, there's guanciale, tomato and pecorino, but there's also cardamom, fenugreek and garam masala. It's a cross-pollination of the traditional Roman recipe with some very subcontinental flavours. Depending on who you ask, it's either an extremely foolhardy move, or a brilliant one.
This is nothing new for the chef, of course. You could say it's his modus operandi: take a cuisine and pay respect to its origins without being too tightly bound by convention. See the roasted snails with XO sauce and the kimchi gratin Pepperell serves at Alberto's French-style cousin, Restaurant Hubert, for example.
At Alberto's, the Sicilian pasta con le sarde gets a workover – instead of swirling a combination of anchovies, sardines, raisins and currants through bucatini, he throws it atop a grilled swordfish steak, creating a layered, complex triple-threat of fish flavours. In the panna cotta, cow's milk is switched out for lighter macadamia milk that the kitchen makes itself. "It's really delicate and minimalist," Pepperell says, adding that it's one of the dishes he's most proud of. "It's macadamia milk, cream, sugar and vanilla. How can you not like that?"
After two years of French cooking, Alberto's is something of a culinary homecoming for Pepperell, with the chef particularly enjoying making pasta again, a skill he honed at 10 William St, through watching YouTube tutorials, and by consulting his culinary contemporaries. "Dan Johnston from Don Peppino's showed me how to work the pasta extruder," he says. "It's been great to play with – we recently made a calamaretti with squid ink through it."
He's found his happy place in this Italian kitchen, but it wasn't the taste of olive oil, the wobble of a just-set panna cotta, or the heady fragrance of just-ripe tomatoes that lured him back. Ultimately, it was a simple thing: "The sweet smell of Parmigiano-Reggiano."
Alberto's Lounge, 17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, albertoslounge.com
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