Uccello, Sydney restaurant review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Nicholas Watt
There are two Italys. On the one hand we have the Italy of the Renaissance, Verdi and the domes of Brunelleschi. On the other you have game shows, Italian disco and the bunga bunga parties of Berlusconi. The Romans placed tremendous value on dignitas, gravitas and discipline, but if Spartacus: Blood and Sand has taught us anything, they also rather liked seeing oiled-up blokes going at it with swords and tridents. On a good day, Uccello brings together the best of both worlds, each mostly to the benefit of the other.
The restaurant opened in 2008, with Massimo Bianchi cooking initially, and Eugenio Riva taking the reins in 2010. When Riva resigned at the end of last year, his then sous-chef, David Lovett, fresh from Johnandpeter, stepped up. Bianchi and Riva are both undeniably talented, but there's something about the care that goes into Lovett's unfussy cooking that complements the setting just so. It's very easy to like.
The smoke, the mirrors, the little plinths of food plotted across rectangular plates - they play no part in Lovett's cooking. He prefers the in-key rendition to the remix or the Idol-style over-embellishment, and when he plays with his food, his improvisations are witty and for the most part subtle. Have a look at his take on the arrabbiata: whole, barely cooked cherry tomatoes, dried chilli, small leaves of basil, and fine slices of garlic that recall the goombah jailhouse cooking scene in Goodfellas. Parmesan, the sometimes tricky al dente spaghettini. Sweet, spicy, textured, balanced, brilliant. Not for Lovett the karaoke-like approach we see from too many not-actually-Italian chefs. In short, he gets it.
This is a chef unafraid to put pesto on his menu. Not coriander pesto. Not "pesto". Not red pesto, yellow or blue, but Liguria's salsa of basil, cheese, pine nuts, garlic and oil, paired ultra-classically with trofie, green beans and potato. This is a chef with the good sense to see that in some ways, the work of the Italian cook is half done for him. All he has to do is have the humility to understand that the cuisine of Italy contains multitudes of very good ideas, polished to a lustre by the work of a thousand hands, and that he merely needs to pick them out and do his honest best to render them faithfully. This is easier to say than to do, perhaps, but first-principles-wise, it's a pretty unassailable position. Rare is the Italian classic that is improved by deconstruction. Deconstruct the duomo and you end up with bricks.
This grounded quality plays all the better against Uccello's setting. The restaurant's dining room itself is blandly pleasant in a not-especially Italian way. It seats 140, its mass of tables, some of them clothed in beige, set between walls lined with white leather booths. The floors are slate, the light shades resemble lobster pots, and the tea towel-sized napkins are a blessing. The striped white-and-yellow awning at one end, far from the open kitchen, matches the accents that brighten the room. The way the restaurant opens onto the Ivy Pool Club is what really sets it apart, though. The Club is a bar-baths that's synonymous with unbridled hedonism in a certain slice of Sydney society (that is, the slice apt to wear a bikini at a bar on a CBD rooftop). Factoid: the cubicles of the Pool Club changing room, which also serves as Uccello's restrooms, are decorated with pairs of the traditional male/female toilet door symbols engaging in what could be mistaken for acts of vigorous gymnastics. Sometimes they're trios.
After dark in the restaurant, the music grows ever louder and more inescapable, shifting from Latin-inflected Coldplay covers to something more akin to the soundtrack from Boogie Nights. Now the Pool Club brings something of that bunga bunga vibe to Uccello, by the mere fact of its closeness. The menu is usually à la carte, but on Saturday nights you have to go with a set three or four courses ($100 and $120, respectively), which I'm inclined to read as a move by management to discourage punters booking in for, say, a round of bruschetta and a Vodka Espresso before jumping the queue and the guest list and slipping into the club.
But by day the ripple of the pale-blue umbrellas, the waving of palm fronds and the tantalising possibility that the outdoor showers will see some use, lend the restaurant a fillip that's more exotic than annoying. The combined scent of pool water and suntan lotion making its way into the restaurant at lunch can pierce a person right through the heart, and make it very difficult for that person to contemplate a return to their place of employment. It's an effect profoundly reinforced by the deft manner in which the staff dispense booze. These young men and women on the floor are good at their jobs, but they're seldom better than when it comes to keeping their customers well-watered. They sing from a largely Italian wine list that is, while a bit too nakedly top-heavy, still pretty juicy and delicious by most measures. Large trays of beers do the rounds day and night, and there's typically plenty of another-bottle waving and back-slapping going on.
The lamb chops are a bit off-message for the lunch crowd. They're the same Roman-style long-boned numbers popular at Neild Avenue, and though they're cooked just so, laid on the plate with half a lemon and a few spoons of a sympathetic tarragon salsa, they don't yield a lot of meat unless you pick them up and really gnaw them. Tasty, but a definite dry-cleaning hazard, and a bit of a wallop at $35 for two chops, even with a side thrown in. The cotoletta, on the other hand, is a no-brainer - plated even more plainly, again on the bone with the lemon and the offer of a side (hit the chickpeas with celery), with parmesan through its burnished crust, it's the thinking person's schnitzel.
Despite the presence of a worthy rib-eye (with rocket and possibly gratuitous aged balsamic vinegar), a bistecca for two, and some killer pork snags (deployed in casarecce with sage and red wine), the menu's not solely a bloketastica for chaps in blue business shirts in denial about their cholesterol count. The pinzimonio is notable for the neatness of its edit of uncooked vegetables (quartered witlof and cucumber, halved slender carrots, whole breakfast radishes and fennel) and the anchovy savouriness of their bagna càuda-inspired sauce. Red peppercorns are the surprise twist to a rich, dripping tomatoey tangle of tagliatelle and scampi meat, while a side of frankly outstanding nectarines and tomatoes succeeds simply on the quality of the fruit.
The $60 pollo per due succeeds in just about every way, not least in terms of scale. It's roughly the size of a new one-bedroom apartment in Potts Point, and serves four comfortably. Great handfuls of sage go into its production, and butter and lemons. The jointed number-16 Barossa chicken, a beast of a thing, roasted and cut into pieces, comes with a surfeit of wet polenta (all the better to eat you with, my dear), so a side of the woodfired vegetables is technically unnecessary, but worthwhile just the same because the vegetables are so damned good.
The rockin' doesn't stop with dessert. I've been impressed by all six I've stuck a spoon in so far, but it's the Bellini which best demonstrates the kitchen's sweets strategy. It's the closest thing Lovett gets to a remix: he takes the namesake Venetian cocktail as its inspiration and inverts it, the stone-fruit component becoming a fragrant peach sorbet with prosecco poured over it at the table. Classic flavours, contemporary thinking.
With the introduction of its new chef, Uccello finds the right amount of earth and honesty to balance out its blue-sky promises and swimming-pool dreams, and in Uccello David Lovett finds a bold stage for his début solo performance. With both style and substance, bread and circuses, dignitas, gravitas and disco, Uccello is now a restaurant to be reckoned with.
Level 4, Ivy, 320-330 George St, Sydney, (02) 9240 3000, merivale.com.au/uccello.
Cards AE D MC V.
Open Lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm; dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-10.30pm.
Prices Entrées $19-$27, mains $34-$38, desserts $8-$16.
Vegetarian Two antipasti, two pasta dishes.
Noise Noisy, and typically noisier in the evenings and later in the week.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus Sun, surf (sort of) and spaghetti.
Minus Subject to Pool Club fallout.
Watch David Lovett make his spaghettini all'arrabbiata fresca.