A bottle of red, a bottle of white
It all depends upon your appetite
I’ll meet you any time you want
In our Italian Restaurant
Billy Joel’s classic song Scene From An Italian Restaurant triggers visions of red-and-white chequerboard tablecloths and bottles of Chianti in straw baskets but there’s a whole new vibe resonating through Perth’s Italian food scene.
We’re talking traditional, hyper-regional fare but with a modern ‘tweak’.
It’s Italian, Jim, but not as you know it and light years from the days of bloaty, heavy pizzas and the glug, the bad and the ugly pastas of spaghetti ‘Western’.
And the great thing is experiencing this new wave in Italian doesn’t have to break the bank either.
From Guy Grossi’s spectacular Garum at the new Westin Hotel, to Sicilian offerings at Northbridge’s No Mafia and the stylish Santini, Leederville’s mouth-watering Pappagallo, the exquisite Lulu la Delizia in Subiaco, Claremont’s Nolita and the CBD’s sexy wine bar/restaurant Lalla Rookh, Perth diners can take their pick of some amazing culinary offerings.
So just why has the city embraced this new Italian wave?
For one, people are far more likely to go “out of their comfort zone” when dining out and far more receptive to exploring new tastes and dishes.
Cooking standards, too, across the board are exponentially better and paired with the move to ultra-fresh, authentic ingredients Perth now has Italian fare equal to the best in the country and, says Pappagallo’s co-owner Nino La Verghetta, in many cases better than that offered in Italy itself.
Garum’s Guy Grossi agrees the quality of Perth dining has improved markedly and that ‘Italian’ is no longer a one-size-fits-all description.
“You can find seriously good food and service here, everyone should be very proud of that,” he said.
“Gone are the days where Italian food meant just pizza and spaghetti Bolognese. There’s a real sense of regional specialities coming about where dishes such as cacio e pepe (literally cheese and pepper pasta) are getting a great wrap. It’s great for Italian food, we can explore so many regional specialities and guest love to experience something new and learn about its origins.”
Garum (the name is derived from a fish sauce used in ancient Roman cooking) dazzles with both its simplicity and inventiveness – a perfect synergy of classic fare and technical excellence in the large, exposed, kitchen.
“We use modern cookware, like the Zesty oven and possibly something that wasn’t seen in many older restaurants, things like sous-vide technique, where appropriate, comes in. But we try to keep things as authentic as possible,” said Grossi.
“If something needs time to braise slowly, in a pan over a flame for many hours, then nothing else will get the same result.
“Garum is all about exploring Roman cooking…so this means including ancient Roman techniques, modern Roman classics and using Roman influence on more contemporary dishes.”
And you can’t get much more Roman than Quinto Quarto.
“We feature an offal dish as this was a really important part of Roman cuisine – they referred to it as the ‘fifth quarter’ of the animal. So, we do a braised ox tail, for example, or pickled ox tongue to highlight this tradition,” he said.
An experience on a different scale, but no less satisfying, is the Sicilian bar/resto No Mafia in bustling Northbridge.
Emma Ferguson and partner Dan had travelled extensively throughout Italy but it was Sicily that captured their hearts, minds and imagination.
“We met a really cool young group of winemakers, musicians, artists and restaurant and bar owners in the ‘no mafia’ movement. It was a really peaceful progressive group of people focused on the new wave of change and we were hooked. We related to them because we were about to come back to Perth and do the same – back then it was mostly big pubs reigning the streets of Perth, and we wanted to open a tiny little southern Italian resto,” said Ferguson.
Four years on No Mafia is smashing it, offering Perth customers their own little slice of Sicily.
“I think people want to ‘feel’ something when they go out, otherwise they might just stay at home. We strive to offer the full experience; we make our limoncello and gnocchi, for example, and No Mafia is a really tiny bar/resto, so people are transported to Europe for a few hours,” she said.
“Perth has really evolved in the last 18 months; I love the diversity of big hotels with classy fit-outs compared to little guys with quirky, on-point offerings. I think the service is second-to-one in the little quirky ones.”
In Oxford Street, Leederville, Nino La Verghetta’s Pappagallo also offers a hearty, authentic but thoroughly modern Italian dining experience.
La Verghetta hails from Vasto, a coastal city in eastern Italy (and Perth’s sister-city) but Pappagallo’s fare is heavily influenced by Rome – especially the amazing pizzas, which use a flour mix certified by the Associazione Pizzerie Italiana (API).
The resulting crusts are crisp, ultra-light and, says La Verghetta, and easy to digest.
Without a hint of hubris, La Verghetta says Pappagallo’s pizzas raised the bar for the quality of pizzas throughout Perth.
“When we started we had our competitors coming in and trying our pizzas and many have gone and tried to do the same,” he said.
While imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, La Verghetta isn’t resting on his laurels – he’s about to open a sister restaurant, Teglia Romana, that will aim to take the API pizza to even greater heights.
“The dough is prepared for 96-120 hours and will be perfectly light,” he said.
Pappagallo is far more, though, than a mere pizza bar, in no small part thanks to the creativity of head chef Giovanni Astolfoni, whose flair comes to the fore in to-die-for fare such as an ethereal beef cheek ravioli on a potato puree.
A radiologist by profession, La Verghetta said his first love was always food and the hospitality industry and he’s loving the chance to help reshape Perth’s Italian food scene.