In a city loaded with hidden gems – concealed in dark alleys and dingy basements, behind unmarked doors and unassuming shop windows – there are other venues that go for the opposite approach, sucking you in with a blast of bright lights and loud noises. The Dolphin Hotel is one of those. You can hear it coming from a dozen doors down on Crown Street. Baselines blare from open windows, diners chatter cheerily from curbside tables, a giant banner strung from the first floor balcony reads: You Want a Pizza Me? Stepping inside is like entering the heart of the storm.
This isn’t, after all, your standard Sydney pub. Walls wrinkle with off-white fabric, tables and chairs pop with black-on-white faux graffiti, daily specials are taped to arbitrary vertical surfaces. The place is positively sprawling, opening into a collection of distinct dining rooms and bar areas, including an outdoor terrace and street seating.
The clientele is young, smartly dressed, and – on weekends – in a riotous mood. The packs of day drinkers and hen parties are more likely to be after a tray of sours than a perfect pizza. But that hasn’t stopped the hotel’s head honchos from serving that up.
They’ve spent the last few months building the Delfino Pizzeria, a dedicated in-house pizza kitchen. It boasts a handmade Neapolitan Mesiano wood oven, a dough recipe made of three types of Italy-imported flours, and the masterful hands of head pizzaiola Sasha Smiljanic, who previously led the kitchen at popular Newtown pizzeria Bella Brutta.
In a raised corner of the main dining room, like an all-night on-stage performance, pizza bases are scattered with toppings, flashed in the oven and swept to your table in about ten minutes. The crust is wide, puffy and charred with cracked black bubbles, the type you feel could be torn off, stacked up, and served as a sumptuous stand-alone dish.
When the dough’s this good, a simple marinara or margherita suffices. The margherita is daubed with the sweetest tomatoes, topped with mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil, and salted with subtle shavings of parmesan. The marinara packs a firmer punch, sharp with garlic, chilli and anchovies.
There are more flamboyant options, with the Mera e Monti (king prawn, pancetta, fermented chilli, XO, cherry tomato, basil and mozzarella), Patate e Formaggio (roast potato, smoked scarmorze, pecorino, garlic, mozzarella, sage, and pancetta), and Funghi e Tartufo (porcini, chestnut, king brown mushrooms, truffle, mozzarella, thyme and oregano) all topped with lesser-known combinations. Among these, the Caponata – with saline flashes of olives and eggplant ragu cooled by round white islands of fresh ricotta – is a stand-out.
Elsewhere, the menu shoots for even more invention, adaptation and pizzazz – and certified non-pub food, including a truffle butter pasta; an excellent saffron risotto with short rib gravy; and pan-seared snapper with ’nduja XO dressing. The Delfino Drinks menu (aka the cocktail list) contains an Old Fashioned turned sickly sweet with banoffee flavours; an Amaretto Sour with a fruity injection of paradise pear, cherry and fresh lemon; and a Spicy Watermelon Margarita with wild strawberry and habanero.
Hiding in the shadows are simple share plates that quietly steal the show. Three to try: a neat stack of crisp, sea-salted polenta chips with a dollop of whipped sour cream; thin folds of Afghan flatbread coated in smoky nigella seeds; and baked house-made ricotta weaved with chilli and lathered in hot sticky honey. They’re worth spoiling your appetite for (just grab a box for the pizzas).
When we visit the Dolphin during the day it’s a whole different affair. Sun-lit and white-washed, the vibe is more coastal relaxed than Saturday Night Fever. Colleagues are having their weekly team lunch and we see families catching up over chilled rosé. The two things that stay the same? The drinks are flowing and the pizza still rocks.
With the departure of Icebergs restaurateur Maurice Terzini from the hotel’s management in 2020, along with chef Monty Koludrovic, the Dolphin Hotel has been in need of a fresh direction. Now, with an almighty pizza-inspired reboot, the good times are well and truly back at Crown Street – and their neighbours are sure to know about it.