Besser, Sydney restaurant review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Andrew Finlayson
Puglia is the new Tuscany. Or at least it was. The Collio is the new Chianti. Or at least it might be. Trastevere is the old Pigneto. Or at least that's what I read in the glossy travel magazines.
But the hot new region that's inspiring restaurateurs around the
world can't be found on Google Maps.
It's the past.
Sydney in 2015 is a hotbed of contemporary Italian cooking - a place where chefs who have moved through restaurants casual and formal, eating food from the Middle, South and Far East along the way, start making connections that result in fresh takes on Italian cooking seldom seen (let alone executed convincingly) in Rome and Milan. But even as Mitch Orr teams fish balls with spaghetti at Acme, Federico Zanellato does coda alla vaccinara in sang choi bao at LuMi and Alessandro Pavoni stuffs spit-roasted lamb into agnolotti and then dresses them with goat's milk yoghurt at Ormeggio, the scene here is fertile enough to produce a smart eatery looking in almost the opposite direction.
While the chaps from Torrisi Italian Specialties tapped into a current of Godfather and Goodfellas cool when they channelled classic New York red-sauce joints to open Carbone in Manhattan back in 2013, Eugenio Maiale and his partners from A Tavola have been far more ambitious in their choice of inspiration: 1970s suburban Italo-Australia.
That explains the green concrete floor, at least. And the spiky plants in concrete pots, and quite possibly the chicken wire over the shelves above the open kitchen. And it explains the name: a frieze of besser blocks, the least-missed vestige of 1970s landscaping, adorns the wall above the (concrete) banquette.
This used to be Billy Kwong but the brave renovation, which knocked down the wall into the shopfront next door to double the floor space, has rendered it unrecognisable. On paper it may sound chilly and - let's say it - more than a little misguided, but although it feels a little spare and raw, it works.
If you'd had a grappa too many you might be tempted to say that it has an open sunniness that (stay with me) recalls the upcycled Motel 6 vibe at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs as much as it does Sundays at Nonna's house. Almost.
The thing that animates it, the thing that ties it all together and brings to life the idea of it being about family get-togethers in a more innocent time, is generosity. The food comes out on blue-and-white enamelware, but it's more homely and uncomplicated than slavishly retro. It's hard not to like a menu that lists "today's fresh bread" and then immediately follows it with "yesterday's bread, garlic butter", and it's harder still not to like that bread when it's drenched so comprehensively with that butter.
Everything about the shape, scope, feel and price of the place suggests it's been designed with groups in mind, and the carte is perfectly flexible in that regard. Several of the small dishes can be ordered a piece at time, whether it's superb sardines, boned, crumbed, fried, dusted with salt and served hot in a sweet little brown paper envelope with garlic mayo, or the lushly juicy pork, veal and beef meatballs.
By the same token, you could lounge in the window as a lone wolf with a glass of rosato and watch Crown Street's near-peerless people-parade over a bowl of gnocchi with turkey ragù and be perfectly happy. The potato dumplings are airy and light, the sauce rugged and hearty. A scattering of crunchy fried breadcrumbs makes for an inspired garnish.
It's appealingly unfussy food for the most part, a
smear-free-zone, and yet smart touches abound: the melting slivers
of bittersweet witlof atop a wide, shallow bowl of wet polenta
mixed with shreds of radicchio and daubs of Gorgonzola dolcelatte,
say; a salty grating of ricotta salata that makes a plate of very
thoroughly roasted, almost caramelised carrots, fennel and
crisped-up kale pop with flavour. If the tzatziki-like cucumber and
yoghurt mixture that accompanies "lamb fingers" of breaded and
fried shoulder meat, creamy under its golden crust, seems mildly at
odds with the theme, it makes perfect sense on the plate.
A word about the wine on tap: it's slightly annoying. The way that it's listed by variety without reference to who makes it is off-putting, at any rate. Wine on tap seems entirely in keeping with the backyard aesthetic, and offering it by the glass, bottle, litre and half-litre carafe is useful, especially with nothing priced over $50. But the lack of detail suggests that unless you're simply after a quaffer you'd be better off looking to the larger list rather than mucking around trying to drag details about the wine out of the otherwise helpful, knowledgeable staff.
The list isn't huge, but the edit of mostly Italian wines is fair, if skewed a little pricey in the reds. The cocktail list is smart, and the beers on offer include some good local brews as well as Ichnusa, Menabrea and Peroni. Nothing actually made in anyone's uncle's shed. Or at least nothing listed.
As befits a visit to nonna's house, there's a welcome regard here for care in the details in just about everything else. Chicken, slow-roasted and pan-seared, is golden and juicy, strewn with soft cloves of garlic, a branch of rosemary and a red chilli. A side of braised lentils is done as perfectly straight as it would be back in Italy, while the plate of green things is notable for the fact that each bean and pea on it is cooked just so. The balance of flavours in the roasted red peppers with creamed salt cod, a classic combination done here with the winning addition of capers, rings of red onion and crisp croûtons, is just as careful.
"Mum's birthday sponge cake" might just be the most Instagrammed dessert in town right now. And when you're presented with something so artfully, artlessly decorated with silver and gold dragées, you too may find yourself reaching for your phone. Reach for a spoon instead: the layers of booze-soaked sponge, orange ricotta and Yogo-like chocolate custard taste even better than they look.
Or opt instead for a truly 1970s throwback with vanilla ice-cream and a salad of red apple, grapes, kiwifruit, musky strawberries, persimmon, pear and mint leaves served in one of those pressed wooden bowls that held bhuja mix at Uncle Terry's and Aunty June's parties back in the day.
Aesthetically speaking, Besser isn't so much the Rat Pack at the Tropicana as Uncle Enzo doing his best Deano in the garage after that grappa too many.
It's a bring-your-own-scene sort of arrangement, but when the table is set in such an inviting manner, and when the welcome is so warm, being cool might just have to take a back seat to being happy. There's no shortage of Italian eateries specialising in attitude; if you want a restaurant where generosity is the signature instead, Besser is the place for you.
Shop 3, 355 Crown St, Surry Hills, (02) 9331 1611
Cards AE MC V EFT
Open Lunch Thu-Sun noon-3pm, dinner Mon-Thu, Sun 5.30pm-10pm, Fri & Sat 5.30pm-11pm
Prices Entrées $10-$16, main courses $22-$29, desserts $7-$10
Vegetarian Two entrées, two main courses
Wheelchair access Yes
Minus A very specific aesthetic
Plus Food to please all comers, sound value