It arrives in two, each one the shape of a wallet flushed with cash, and placed in a small, white bowl. The icy red dessert is wrapped in a translucent mochi coat. I pick one up, take a bite, and the chilled sorbet bursts in my mouth. It tastes like bright, juicy cherries, perfectly ripe and sweet, the kind you hunt down in summertime. And on this 40°C day, I can’t think of a better way to end a rocking dinner at Ito than this refreshing and delicious cherry sorbet coated in a thin and stretchy Japanese rice cake. In fact, if every dinner moving forward could end like this, that'd be ace, thank you.
Ito is the newish kid on the Crown Street block, having taken over the former café Cuckoo Callay’s site in late 2023. The two-storey, 85-seater is by the team who brought us elegant Middle Eastern restaurant Allia and pastel-hued Nour. At Ito, they’ve brought in an ex-Nobu and Cho Cho San chef, Erik Ortolani, to lead the charge, swapping sumac and harissa for soy, ponzu and pecorino. That’s right – Ito is a Japanese izakaya all right, but with an Italian touch (a nod to Ortolani’s heritage).
We’re taken up to our seats on the second floor. Skilled Australian architect Matt Darwon has transformed the space with warm Tasmanian blackwood furniture, clean lines and pops of colour: ruby tuna, orange salmon and blue steel. A gorgeous kimono hangs on one wall. And even though it’s nearly a full house, the acoustics are such that I can hear my date without having to raise my voice. Big tick.
Thankfully, there’s air-con, but the memory of back sweat isn’t far from my mind, so a Watermelon Spritz it is. Made with Poor Toms Imbroglio (a bitter-sweet amaro similar to Campari), Japanese plum liqueur umeshu, fresh watermelon and prosecco, it’s fun and highly smashable. There are also Martinis plucked from the freezer, Highballs, local beers from Yulli’s and Wildflower, as well a Japanese Kirin beer, traditional teas, a five-page sake list, and vino from mostly Australia, New Zealand and Italy.
It’s snack time. Thinly sliced yellowfin tuna is draped over golden triangles of fried, crisp flatbread with bonito the colour of marigold sprinkled on top. Lemon adds a touch of acidity to the subtle, salty and crunchy bite.
Half an eggplant arrives skin-side-down, laying in a base of tomato kaeshi and adorned with earthy-coloured 100s and 1000s. The vegetable has been cooked long enough so the flesh is so soft you can scoop it out with a spoon. Nutty tahini adds a smooth and creamy element, pops of golden fried barley inject crunch, and the delicate tomato kaeshi, lifted with dashi, is the right balance of sweet and salty. In short, a home run.
The Italian influence comes into play with duck ravioli, where tender shredded duck is covered in silky, slippery pasta underneath parmesan snow and served with a roasted brown butter and ponzu sauce. A dusting of Japanese pepper sansho imparts an aromatic note, and orange zest brings a fruity taste and makes the dish sing.
Wagyu comes out sliced, glossy and lacquered, with a nice char thanks to being cooked on the hibachi. The jus is concentrated, tastes salty like Vegemite and has the consistency of caramel, and the meat is buttery soft. There are dobs of hot English mustard and black garlic to add more oomph, but for me the meat flavour and sticky glaze doesn’t need support. It’s rich, we’re savouring each mouthful, and thankfully we picked the right wing man: a simple, crunchy and fresh shredded cabbage salad dotted with pickled ginger.
At Ito, Ortolani cleverly remixes Japanese and Italian cuisines with finesse, and the results are delicious. It’s clear the chefs have a deep understanding of flavours and how to marry them together well. I’ll be back for the chicken and octopus skewer licked with ’nudja; the spaghetti twirled with spanner crab, garlic and togarashi; and charred Roman beans with barley miso and furikake. And when Sydney puts on its next cracking hot day, you know where to come, and what to order. Watermelon Spritz and cherry mochi sorbet, I’m looking at you.
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