Destinations

An eating guide to Italy from Australia's top Italian chefs

Heading to Italy? Italian-Australian chefs share their
picks of what and where to eat back in the old country.

By Maggie Scardifield
A culinary journey into the unexplored regions of Italy

Calabria

Pasquale Trimboli, chef-owner, Italian & Sons, Bacaro, Mezzalira and Da Rosario, Canberra

I'm from a small village called Platì in Calabria, on the slopes of the Aspromonte mountains. Platì has a population of about 4000. They keep things simple: there's one road in, one road out, and a small bar in the main piazza where all the men gather after lunch and discuss life, sport and women.

My relatives who have remained in the village are farmers and either grow or hunt. They rarely go to the supermarket. They rear their own pigs and cows, make cheese, cure meats, make wine and olive oil from their groves. Our meals together are a celebration of their hard work and this close connection with the land.

You must eat 'nduja when you visit Calabria, our traditional and very distinctive spreadable chilli sausage. Chilli is prevalent in Calabrian dishes, being our native ingredient. Some say it matches our fiery and passionate personalities.

We're also fond of a cheese native to our region known as caciocavallo. It's a salty, semi-hard cheese, which, where I'm from, is made from a mixture of cow's and goat's milk, and aged for 18 weeks. It's in the same vein as pecorino, but each region in Calabria has its own version. That's the beauty of Italian food: we all think we do it better than the next village or region.

Calabria isn't as commercialised as some regions, and its cuisine is on the way up. What makes it special is the combination of the mountains and the sea. Recipes use local ingredients such as eggplant, peppers, fava beans with swordfish, and simplicity is key. As we all know, however, the more simple it is, the easier it is to get wrong.

While it's not Calabrian, in Sydney you can always get a great home-style dish at Quattro Passi in Darlinghurst. Da Noi in South Yarra, Melbourne, specialises in Sardinian cuisine, which in most parts shares the same philosophy as Calabrian food. Ask for extra chilli on the side and you can turn anything Calabrese.

Campania

Tony Percuoco, chef, Tartufo, Brisbane

I'm from Napoli in Campania. Whenever I go back I always stay on the seaside and around Lungomare di Napoli, either at Eurostars Hotel Excelsior or at the Grand Hotel Vesuvio. Both are great bases for waking up to Vesuvius. That view still takes my breath away.

Everything seems to be within 50 kilometres of my town. The two main things I eat when I'm in Campania are mozzarella with tomato and basil and the famous spaghetti alle vongole, a dish that is a true reflection of how the region works. The spaghetti is from Gragnano, surrounded by hills on the Amalfi Coast. The air comes from the sea and dries the pasta to perfection. The tomatoes, grown on the foothills of Vesuvius, are ripened by dry sun and volcanic soil; the vongole are from Sorrento. The biggest difference from Australian vongole is that the vongole from Sorrento have a much thinner shell. Italy's buffalo mozzarella, meanwhile, doesn't ever see the inside of a fridge and is never more than three days old. You can eat these dishes anywhere in Napoli. I've not had a bad one.

Along with the food, what I miss most about home is being able to walk down the street at 11 o'clock at night and find a restaurant open that isn't fast food. You could sit down to a three-course meal if you wanted to.

Don't be scared by the amount of people on the road or the fact that their hands seem permanently glued to the horn. Welcome to Italy.

Federica Andrisani, chef and co-owner, Fico, Hobart

The last time I was in Napoli, my hometown, was two years ago. Campania is a region with a rich cultural fabric of Spanish, French, Turkish and Italian influences. And it's the home of mozzarella di bufala.

When you drive from the north of Italy and cross over the border into the region, the first thing you notice is the caseificio: the roadside shops that make and sell fresh mozzarella and scamorza affumicata every morning. You must stop and buy the still-warm fresh mozzarella and eat it by the roadside with all the milk running down your cheeks.

Napoli is also famous for the morning ritual of eating baba and sfogliatella. The best I've found are at Scognamiglio or Mary in the Galleria Umberto shopping centre.

Napoli is chaotic and full of energy. The first place I go is a little restaurant called Il Grottino in Pomigliano d'Arco. Nino, the chef and owner, is a long-time family friend famous for cooking the best fish over open charcoal. He's almost 70 now, but still mans the stoves, and every day he drives two hours to Formia to get fish. A couple of his specialties are raw tartufi di mare, large clams, and gamberi rossi alla griglia, grilled red prawns. His risotto with squid ink, al nero di seppia, and salad of baby fish are also phenomenal, and his wife, Rosaria, makes the best pizza chiena in Napoli.

Two of the most important things in Neapolitan culture are food and family. The people in Naples don't need an excuse to celebrate – every day is Christmas or Easter; every day is a good day to stay together, with family or friends, and to eat good food and drink good wine.

Abruzzo

Eugenio Maiale, chef-owner, A Tavola and Flour Eggs Water, Sydney

I'm Australian born, but my parents are from a town called Palmoli, in the Chieti province of Abruzzo. I was there last year meeting the winemakers who supply my restaurants.

National parks and nature reserves cover much of Abruzzo, along with hilltop towns dating back to the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It's extremely beautiful in winter, with snow-peaked mountains, and then in half an hour you can be at the sandy coves of Costa dei Trabocchi.

The first thing I do when I'm back in my parents' village is go to the local pasticciera for a tray of traditional biscotti to take to my zia's house. It's always a big family gathering with lots of cousins and even neighbours. I'm overwhelmed with their eagerness for me to try their homemade prosciutto, ventricina and pork liver, fennel and orange sausages cooked over hot coals, as well as olives (only just ready to be eaten) and soft pecorino. This is just a prelude to an explosion of some of the best food one will ever eat.

Maccheroni alla chitarra is a style of egg pasta very typical of my region. The name comes from the tool used to make it, the chitarra, which means guitar, and looks like a stringed instrument. The pasta dough is rolled into sheets and then pushed through the strings of the chitarra with a rolling pin, which cuts it into strips.

It makes a unique shape of maccheroni – similar to a square-edged spaghetti – and is the perfect shape and texture for ragù. I like it with ragù di agnello e peperoni: slow-cooked local lamb, with red peppers grown in the garden and pecorino.

I'm always overwhelmed with how self-sufficient the people of Abruzzo are, and what a simple and happy life they lead. You can't ignore the slower pace of life, the breathtaking scenery and the sense of freedom that engulfs you on arrival. To the Abruzzese, food is life and life is food – a mantra that I hold close to my heart, too.

Veneto

Enrico Tomelleri, chef, 10 William St, Sydney

I'm from Verona, which is pretty close to Venice. Verona sits close to the Lessinia mountains and Lake Garda, the biggest lake in Italy. In a few hours by car you can reach the Adriatic Sea or Austria and Croatia. It's busy in summer with tourists, but because it's a historical city it still tends to keep pretty quiet. After six in the evening you can visit a public square to drink your Negroni or beer under a statue of Dante Alighieri. It's guaranteed good vibes and a good way to socialise.

My favourite thing to do back home is go carp and trout fishing with my father and friends – or in the winter I go snowboarding on Monte Baldo. Living in Australia I really miss a proper winter: proper jackets, a scarf and beanie, the snow. What makes me homesick is the smell of cinnamon, juniper and cloves. And I miss the Christmas markets.

Sydney has a great choice of proper Italian food, but there's no place like home. I was recently in Adelaide and the Barossa Valley reminded me of the hills in Valpolicella, Verona's wine region.

If you visit Verona, you must go in search of some horse meat. Not the most popular choice for an Australian, but a straight horse-meat tartare is incredible – and if the weather is cold, enjoy a nice glass (or two) of mulled wine with a donkey stew and sauce pearà by a fireplace somewhere.

Federico Zanellato, chef-owner, LuMi, Sydney

My hometown is Este, not far from Padua, in the Veneto region. It has a beautiful castle that's nearly a thousand years old, and a little river running through the town. It's lively in summer with a lot of people having aperitivo around the main piazza, and lots of kids running around and old people chatting.

Whenever I go back I try all the new restaurants – both fine dining and more casual, traditional food. I usually go to Osteria l'Anfora, a trattoria where they serve all the classic dishes such as bigoli made with chicken-liver ragù or sarde in saor, sweet and sour sardines. They serve excellent horse meat.

My wife and I usually visit a few winemakers every year in the Veneto region and Friuli, close to the Slovenian border. Recently, we've been to a couple of really good restaurants worth visiting. Ristorante Aga, near Cortina d'Ampezzo, and the Michelin-starred el Coq and la Peca, both in Vicenza, are very special. And for a new style of gourmet pizza, I Tigli, near Verona, is not to be missed.

We always make time to go to Venice, which is less than an hour's drive from Este. For cicchetti, Osteria Alla Ciurma, Al Merca and I Rusteghi are some of my favourites.

I really miss all the artisanal local produce in Veneto. Things like goose, donkey meat, wild asparagus, baccalà that's made with Ragno stockfish, the heirloom tardivo radicchio, and cheeses from the north of my region.

Catania

Rosa Mitchell, chef-co-owner, Rosa's Canteen, Melbourne

I was born in Catania, in Sicily, and migrated to Australia when I was seven. I had a quick trip this year for Slow Fish, a sustainable seafood festival in Genoa, then went to Sicily for two weeks. I'd forgotten how much I missed seeing Mount Etna. Now when I travel to Catania I'm always looking out for her.

The thing I love to do when I first arrive is visit the produce market and the fish market, which is probably one of the best in Italy. I love the thought of living and shopping day to day. On my last visit a fish jumped from one end of the market to the other, and the pipis and other shellfish are still alive. We don't see that in Australia. You'll also find lots of offal, live snails, and obscure vegetables sold by the person who grew them. It's a great atmosphere: noisy, busy and quite theatrical.

Some of Sicily's best restaurants are here, too. They're not necessarily high-end, but have good honest food. Seafood is the specialty of the area. Also seek out arancini, spaghetti alla Norma, cannoli, gelato – the list goes on. If you're game, another food that's a must is horse. Lots of little restaurants in the backstreets have barbecues on the footpath. They'll grill a piece of horse meat for you, place it in a roll, and away you go.

In Australia, I hold onto home by spending time with family. Having a meal, making salami, pickling, or our tomato sauce day – these things are what we did in Catania, and we continue these traditions. They bring people together.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Joel Valvasori-Pereza, chef-co-owner, Lulu La Delizia, Perth. Photo by Jessica Wyld

My family hails from the Pordenone province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in the north-east of Italy. They're great people with great spirit. Time moves so fast – it's now been 10 years since I was there last. Something that always sticks in my mind are the prosciutto bars of the beautiful hilltop town of San Daniele. I was there in the late afternoon in the middle of winter, looking out over vineyards, with the sun starting to dip behind the misty fields. The hilly streets have several old-school bars that specialise in the town's most famous export: the soft and sweet prosciutto San Daniele DOP. You can buy plates of prosciutto crudo and also speck wrapped around thick grissini, and pay per stick.

Another dish that sticks in my mind is boiled muset sausage (similar to cotecchino) served with braised fermented turnips and horseradish. The name refers to the traditional use of snout, head meat and skin. It's simmered in water for hours to render down the collagen, which creates a very sticky and unctuous texture.

The area where my family lives is on the main plain near the Tagliamento river. It's a grape-growing area so there are vineyards for as far as the eye can see, and the Friulane Alps provide the backdrop.

Finding a taste of Friuli in Australia is a rarity. I went to Beppi's in Sydney once and the little back cellar room was probably the closest I've come.