Ormeggio, Sydney restaurant review

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Chris Chen

I hope this doesn't sound too grand for January, but I've been thinking: while hotel food seems more homogenous than ever, good restaurants are becoming more and more personal. Allow me to present exhibit A, the restaurant just opened by the bloke who used to run the kitchen at the Park Hyatt's Harbourkitchen&bar. It's called Ormeggio. It's Italian for "mooring" - entirely fitting given that the restaurant, open to the water on three sides and with The Spit's d'Albora Marina at its back, is surrounded by pleasure craft bobbing in the swell. The mercifully subtle peacock motif etched here and there into the glass, and reiterated in a vase of shiny tail feathers, meanwhile, is simply a reference to the English translation of "Pavoni", the chef's surname.

What becomes clear as you eat your way through the menu is that the food here is all about Alessandro Pavoni. Not his desire to show off or dazzle you with shows of technique or trills of presentation, but where he's from and who he is. The "who" is a trained chef with some serious experience under his belt. The "where he's from" part varies from dish to dish, but that he's Italian is always abundantly clear; that he's a northerner, too. The interesting part is that most of the dishes include elements not simply of the food of his state of Lombardy but of the region of Brescia, and even more specifically, the hill town where he grew up, the focus shifting like so many clicks on Google Earth. Like his friend Giovanni Pilu, Pavoni is putting his money where his mouth is, trying to present a truly regional Italian menu rather than the greatest-hits collections we're normally patronised with. The approach is, I hope, not so much something we diners view as a trend as a bloody good idea whose time has well and truly come.

This is all fine and dandy, you're thinking, and good on this bloke for getting out from under the hotel thumb and doing his own thing, and for giving it a good Aussie go, but what does this mean for my lunch exactly? Good things, friends, nothing but good things. You don't have to give a bugger about Brescia to enjoy the hell out of the agnolotti, for instance. The instant you pop one in your mouth, a light goes on in your head: yes, this man can really cook. The little pasta parcels are filled with a creamy mix of ricotta and bagòs, a hard cow's milk cheese flavoured with a touch of saffron, imported by Pavoni from Bagolino, a town just down the road from his home town of Pezzoro. The strong flavours of the filling and the tomato and black olive shards it's sauced with play well together, but it's the pasta that sets the dish apart. The butter-yellow of the agnolotti hints at part of their secret: many, many egg yolks have gone into this dough, and it's brilliantly silken and supple as a result.

The recipe for the pici is very different (wholemeal flour, white wine, no eggs), but the springy, rounded noodles are just as impressive in their execution. The wholemeal flavour and texture of the pasta finds a real harmony with the sauce, a chunky ragù of rabbit and peas made all the more earthy with a good helping of porcini mushrooms.

Among the main courses, the Brescian-style pork involtini is competent and satisfying without being what you'd call exciting. It's kurobuta pork neck cooked tender in a sheath of pancetta, paired with a firm wedge of polenta and sautéed spinach. It echoes the politic, cautious and meticulous food Pavoni did at harbourkitchen. It's perfectly enjoyable, especially with a carafe of Umbrian sangiovese or a Valpolicella from the Veneto, but there are lustier, more rousing things on the menu.

Take the king prawns, for instance. The prawns themselves are simply large and fresh, split and char-grilled, bang. They ride on a soft sea of farro, whole wheat grains flavoured with a judicious sprinkling of saffron. Slivers of almonds - like the saffron, a mainstay of the food of Brescia - mediate between the protein and the carbs. There's nothing extraneous here, just a confident marriage of flavours and textures.

If you're not already outside, take your dessert out on the deck. The tables inside are blessed with views of Pearl Bay or the wonderfully varied architecture of the mansions of Seaforth (high modern and mock-Tudor cheek-by-jowl with mission bordello and late Troy McClure), but sitting with nothing more than a fledgling rosemary hedge between you and the water is hard to beat. In the dining room, tables are clothed, smart waiters are numerous and the vibe is buzzy, especially on weekends, when there are plenty of nippers around, playing with dad's iPhone and making the most of the kids' menu.
There's considerable polish in the presentation of the sweets. A ribbon of chopped ruby-bright strawberries and small basil leaves sprinkled with sesame seeds leads to a fat cylinder of sesame gelato sandwiched between thin discs of chocolate biscuit. The yoghurt panna cotta, prettier still, is a low, wide circle topped with a layer of cherry jelly (admittedly stronger of hue than taste) and garnished with fresh cherries and crunchy pieces of honeycomb.

The wine list isn't vast, especially when you compare it with that of near neighbours Pilu at Freshwater, but it's far from a tedious rep-driven cellar-by-numbers. There's focus here, with a bias, appropriately enough, towards the wines of northern Italy, a handful of bottles from Brescia among them. I expect the best way to put the list through its paces would be to gather a posse of 10, give the kitchen a day's notice and try out the spiedo alla Bresciana, a spit roast in the Brescian style. Your $52 a head buys you pretty much the equivalent of a small northern Italian farm, rotisserie-roasted for around five hours, the hunks of chicken, quail, rabbit and pork dripping with sage and butter and served with plenty of polenta.

There's confidence here both front- and back-of-house, and you get the clear sense that six months down the track Ormeggio will be doubly impressive. If this is the north-shore mooring for summer - and it certainly looks that way - then it's time to start practising your sheet bends and rolling hitches.


d'Albora Marina, The Spit, Mosman, NSW, (02) 9969 4088, ormeggio.com.au
Cards  AE MC V.
Open Lunch Wed-Sun noon-3pm; dinner Tues-Sat 6pm-10pm; breakfast Sat-Sun 8am-10.30am.
Price Entrées $24-$30, mains $36-$38, desserts $15.
Vegetarian One antipasto, two pastas.
Noise Convivial.
Wheelchair access Not great.
Plus Singular food, lovely setting.
Minus Bathrooms shared with marina.

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