The Italian Job
Tuesday, 15 Feb 2000
From section: Good Living Eat out Good eating Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Leichhardt, Leichhardt, Leichhardt. (Long, painful sigh.) It's been a long time between good restaurants. While Frattini Cafe still does a cheerful job and Elio bravely ventures into more upmarket, modern cucina Italiana, the remaining cafes and institutions seem to specialise in cheap cakes, acidic pasta sauces and hard coffee. You will have read about Norton Street's revival, about the new book shops (Shearer's and Berkelouw) and cinemas (Palace), and a startling new shopping piazza called the Italian Forum. It's great fun, filled with a heady mix of shops where you can buy an Italian remix CD, pick up your air freight copy of A Tavola and have your hair cut by someone who looks like Versace. But, please, the restaurants.
Seeing a good-looking display of freshly cooked vegetables in the glass cabinet of one pizza/pasta palace, I order antipasto, only to get a plate of very different things from some other place entirely. So who gets the good stuff? "It's just for display," was the answer to my complaint. So don't tell me about the new Leichhardt. It's an awful lot like the old Leichhardt, only newer.
Thank heavens for Grappa, a breakaway restaurant from Charlie Colosi, who ran the ever-popular La Perla. Grappa is located way down the wrong end of Norton Street, which I hereby declare is now the right end. Grappa, Grappa, Grappa. It's my new best friend of a restaurant, a large designer barn of a place in a brash new building shared with the Amato liquor store and lots of parking spaces. If it hadn't been a restaurant it would have made a great luxury car sales room (don't get any ideas, Charlie, it's been done). Through the plate-glass windows, you can see the inner and outer workings of the place - the big tables of local families, the fiercely burning wood-fired oven, the gleaming kitchen, the bar, its shelves lined with Italian aperitivi and digestivi.
Colosi's father (and partner) imports liquor, and the passion is obviously inherited. Get closer and you start seeing detail. A pan of roasted legs of lamb sitting by the door of the oven; long couches by the bar for inter-course reclining, and a newly arrived Sardinian pizza chef slapping the dough between his fingers. The main course is settled the second I read "snapper baked in a rock-salt crust (2-6 people - 35 to 40 minutes)". This is one of the best dishes Italy ever came up with. Those few restaurants that do it (eg, Lucio's in Paddington) usually require notice, but not here. Mind you, this means I won't be able to order the mixed seafood grill, sliced veal with rocket, rosemary and speck or the woodfired lamb leg, but there are some sacrifices one has to make.
I console myself by starting with a pizza crust ($6.50 a serve), a thin-crusted, nicely blistered pizza base flavoured with rosemary, garlic, chilli, olive oil and a little (unnecessary) cheese. It is served with pots of a sensationally lush, creamy white-bean puree, a very fine chopped black olive puree and a ho-hum salsa. As well as a daily risotto (chicken and radicchio) and pizza (hot salami, olive and Spanish onion) there is a carpaccio of the day. Today it is swordfish ($15); paper-thin slices cleverly dressed with enough oil, balsamic and fresh chilli to make it interesting but not enough to kill the freshness of the fish. A pre-snapper pasta of wide-cut pappardelle tossed with wild mushrooms and duck ($13.50) is generous and rustic, with an over-supply of sauce. The pappardelle is house made and suitably supple and satiny; the nicely stewy duck is full-flavoured; the mushrooms - a mixture of dried and fresh - give the dish a good earthiness.
In spite of the smart, modern feel, this place has the heart and soul of a noisy neighbourhood tratt. Family groups with kids and grandparents in tow pour in as if arriving at their local Italian social club. By the time the snapper arrives, its armour of salt-crusted dough parted down the middle to allow for easy serving, I feel like kissing it on both cheeks. It's big for two people, and not cheap at $30 a person, but it's bloody good. Cooked just to the point when the moist, white flesh leaves the bone easily, it is full of flavour and freshness. Interestingly, the salt crust doesn't make the fish taste overly salty, and yet it seasons the flesh so that very little accompaniment is needed. A jug of fine extra virgin olive oil with fresh herbs is left on the table and is all that is required along with the odd squeeze of a lemon.
By now there is no earthly reason why I should order dessert. A wood-fired caramelised apple tart ($9.50) is light, flaky and properly caramelised, a French treat from pastry chef Gilles Hinkler, who used to own a much-loved patisserie in Avalon. So, now, where do you go to find real Italian food with kiss-on-the-cheek Italian hospitality? Leichhardt, Leichhardt, Leichhardt. (Long, contented sigh.)
Lunch, Tues-Fri and Sun noon-3 pm.
Dinner, daily 6 pm-10 pm. Food Italian.
Owners, Charlie Colosi and Tony Colosi.
Floor, Fast, helpful, child friendly.
Cards, AE BC DC MC V.
Vibe, Upmarket Italian social club.
Wine, A good bright list, with the occasional gem. More than a dozen wines by the glass.
Smoke, Smoking permitted.
Access, Wheelchair accessible, disabled toilet.
Noise, Noisy when full.
Vegetarian, Some. options. Plus Italian flavour.
Minus, Blinding sun at dusk (blinds are due).
Dollars, About $100 for two, plus drinks.
Summary Little Italy just grew bigger, with the recent opening of Grappa down the far end of Norton Street. Go for good, generous pasta, woodfired pizza, snapper in a salt crust, people, parking, and plenty of warm, Italian hospitality.
1-9 Not good enough.
10-11 Needs work.
13 Getting there.
15 Really good.
16 Really, really good.
19 Close to perfect.
20 Total perfection.