Seven Italian dishes that shaped fine dining in the 2000s

Photography: William Meppem

The seeds of Italy's culture have been carried the world, but in Australia they have fallen on ground that has proven to be unusually fertile. Italian food in the restaurants of Australia blossomed into maturity in the new millennium, as the work of these trailblazers shows - dazzling and diverse, a successful balance between adaptation and tradition.

Molecular gastronomy. Surf 'n' turf. Foraging. Pork belly. Lots and lots of pork belly. It wouldn't be correct to say Italian food in Australia made it through the noughties completely untouched by some of the decade's key trends. But then didn't Italy invent surf 'n' turf and foraging? (And, for that matter, pork belly?)

The ability to adapt has always been one of the great strengths of Italian cooking, says Maurice Terzini.

"Some say 'oh, it's not Italian because you use something grown in Australia', but that's regional cooking," adds Lucio Galletto, of Lucio's in Sydney.

Maurice Terzini's squazzata di cozze.

The Italian influence on Australian cooking is, of course, by no means limited to the 2000s. Where England and the United States have had more of a French foundation to their restaurant culture, Italy has ever been the strongest connection to Europe for Australian food (chef and restaurateur Stefano de Pieri calls Italian "the unofficial cuisine of Australia"). But it was during the noughties that Italian restaurant cooking seemed to become truer to Italy than ever.

Perhaps it was simply a matter of time. Ingredients and dishes that had once seemed exotic in the playground or supermarket - fresh pasta, salumi, espresso, bitter greens - moved beyond the realm of the connoisseur, the cognoscenti and the cosmopolitan, and simply became part of daily life, expected, dissected, diversified, cultivated and savoured. A foundation had been laid.

 Lucio Galletto's tagliolini alla granseola.

"When I came to this country, the olive oil was at the chemist," says Armando Percuoco, of Sydney's Buon Ricordo. "The bread was not bread, it was something square - you could make a sculpture out of it; it was horrible. We only had iceberg lettuce; we didn't have all the different types of lettuce we have today. Artichokes were not known in this country, capsicum was only green. Lamb was not baby lamb; it was my grandpa. All of us Italian chefs around Australia had to introduce that mentality to the grower and to the supplier to do better for us."

It was in the 2000s that we saw a sunny celebration of Italian sprezzatura in the hands of chefs such as Karen Martini, Rita Macali, and the Bortolotti family. Robert Marchetti took the baton from his stepbrother, Bill; the Grossi family, having taken over Melbourne's Florentino in 1999, reinvigorated the oldest and most famous Italian restaurant in the country, while the brothers Paradiso made a patch of Melbourne-Italian style bloom in Sydney, and things got seriously glamorous at Icebergs in Bondi.

Stefano De Pieri's minestra di riso e asparagi.

Perhaps most importantly, things started to get really regional, most notably perhaps with Giovanni Pilu at Pilu at Freshwater and Pietro Porcu at Da Noi enriching our understanding of Sardinian cuisine, and Alessandro Pavoni showcasing Lombardy at Ormeggio.

The way Italian food is cooked in Australia has become more authentic, says Stefano dePieri. "Less of the Lygon Street syndrome. People are going to the core of the good traditional essentials, rather than dodgy interpretations. A lot of chefs, a lot of restaurants are going back to the more authentic regional Italian cuisine."

Recipes by our favourite Italian chefs

Lucio Galletto's tagliolini alla granseola

Maurice Terzini's squazzata di cozze

Guy Grossi's abbacchio alla Romana

Armando Percuoco's timballo Napoletano

Rinaldo Di Stasio's lasagne con aragosta

Stephano Manfredi's coniglio all'agrodolce

Stefano De Pieri's minestra di riso e asparagi

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