Read my piece over at CNNGo.com or read on here…
In Sydney’s Little Italy, all things Italian permeate life like garlic in a ragu, and a journey reveals the real taste of Italian cooking. From pizzas to espressos, the delissimo grip on Sydney’s gastronomic landscape is as entrenched and authentic as ever.
Long synonymous with Italian life in Australia, Leichhardt has been attracting hot-blooded Mediterraneans to its terraced streets since the 1940s and 1950s. Branching out from the epicentre of Italian-ness on Norton Street, the march soon spread around the inner west to Haberfield and Five Dock.
Italian businesses thrive in the area and none more so than cafés and restaurants. As well as the crowd-pleasers on Norton Street, there’s a colony of gelato-dripping, pizza-dough flinging, espresso-soaked eateries that put Italian food across the rest of the city to shame.
Rome may have fallen, but things seem alive and well in Sydney’s inner west. Here’s the best.
1. Pizza at Napoli in Bocca
There are few better simple pleasures than a proper pizza. The pinnacle of pizza perfection, though, is often hard to find — distracted as we are by topping-laden pies and extra cheese. At Napoli in Bocca, the humble pizza is elevated to a work of beauty.
The enormous wood-fired oven is a wonderful thing in itself, but the real art of juggling 250 pizzas every weekend evening is something that can’t be taught. Each base is hand-flung then shuffled around varying heats of the cavernous oven before emerging golden, puffy and steaming.
The trick, apparently, is utter simplicity — using fresh tomato sauce, bocconcini, basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and nothing else — on a Caprese ($19). It lets the freshness of the garlicky tomato and sweet yeastiness of the dough sing a lyrical duet.
In true Neapolitan style, the crust is pliable rather than crunchy, so that the pizza can be folded and eaten from paper, as sailors’ habits in the city port dictated. Mamma mia, those seadogs were onto a good thing.
Napoli in Bocca ,73 Dalhousie St., Haberfield, +61 (0)2 9798 4096
2. Whitebait fritters at Little Sicily
Where chef Ciccio goes, those in the know follow. Now at his eighth kitchen, the inimitable Sicilian started one of the area’s original restaurants and still draws a crowd. It’s not hard to see why — unpretentious as the dining area is, the real magic goes on behind the scenes.
Consistent best sellers are the whitebait fritters ($17.80): golden, eggy and full of the saltiness of the tiny fish. They’re simple and packed with wholesomeness, with a zesty hit of lemon juice.
Five nights a week at Little Sicily, a whole suckling pig is roasted, the tender flesh falling off the bone and its salty crackling inducing sighs of happiness. An antipasto caldo is a different take on the cold classic starter: seafood, mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus are flash-fried and served over rocket and mozzarella, the juices turning the lot into a warm, vinegary salad.
The Don of Haberfield will show you how real Italian food is done.
Little Sicily, 194 Marion St., Leichhardt, +61 (0)2 9560 2255
3. Penne Grauchi at Filicudi
An outpost in quiet Five Dock — one of Little Italy’s furthermost tendrils — Filicudi has been faithfully serving honest-to-goodness meals for the last 35 years. Cozy and small, with Chianti bottles strung from the ceiling, it’s a warm and welcoming kind of a place, serving unfussy fare. That’s not to say its kitchen isn’t central to proceedings in the area.
Penne Grauchi ($18.50), a rich crab pasta, is a clear favorite with trusted locals and good value, too. Al dente penne has a deep tomato and cream sauce with blue swimmer crab: it’s heaped high and steaming and is enough for two to share. Get stuck in with the shell-breaking tools and you’ll end up messy and finger-licking, which adds to the rustic appeal.
Octopus in tomato sauce is also worth the trip, proving that old-style cooking endures for all the right reasons. Molto bene!
Filicudi, 11 Ramsay Road, Five Dock, +61 (0)2 9713 8733
4. Gelato at Bar Italia
The strip lighting, wipe-down tables and dodgy art isn’t the draw at this 1959-established godfather of the area. You come here for the gelato.
During summer, queues can stretch out of the door for the rightly-famed and fresh ice-cream, which is made just a few doors away on Norton Street in Bar Italia’s own little factory.
The ranges of flavours are all pretty fantastic, from the cocoa-dusted Tiramisu to the zabaglioni option ($9.50 for four scoops), which goes well cappuccino, even on a cold day.
The zabaglioni flavor – sweet wine-sodden pockets of sponge in creamy, Marsala-heavy gelato – makes for a grown-up treat, but no-one at this Little Italy institution will judge you if mint choc chip is your personal favourite.
Bar Italia, 167-171 Norton St., Leichhardt, +61 (0)2 9560 9981
5. Canoli at Pasticceria Papa
It’s not just because these tubes of more-ish-ness happen to be the Mafioso’s dessert of choice that make them worth a try. It helps that Pasticceria Papa’s canoli ($2) are utterly sublime.
Buttery pastry shells are deep-fried until bubbled and crisp, then filled with sweetened ricotta and dipped into chopped hazelnuts. A dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon finishes them off, adding an extra layer of messiness to the process of eating the crunchy, oozing wickedness.
They won’t win awards for healthiness but that’s a mere distraction from the cause — canoli, after dinner, with a coffee, is a rite of passage for any discerning Italianophile. In fact, canoli with a coffee at any time of the day seems to go at this busy Haberfield stalwart. If you still have room, try a slice of the ever-popular baked ricotta cheesecake, too. Then roll home.
Pasticceria Papa, 145 Ramsay St., Haberfield, +61 (0)2 9798 6894