Italian food is the unofficial second cuisine of Sydney (the first being Thai). Many of the city's best fine dining and casual eateries have heavily Italian influenced menues, and while good pizzerias and dirt-cheap red sauces places are harder to find than the poshest stuff, there are still spades of options to choose from. We've picked our favourites from every style, so no matter what mood you're in, there's something here for you.
We wouldn't call chef Mitch Orr’s food straight up Italian. He's been known to say he takes more influence from Chinatown than he does the Cinque Terre. So what the hell do you call a restaurant serving a menu of seven pastas, a baloney sandwich and cucumber spears pickled in gin? Italianese? Chitalian? It probably doesn’t matter. The more important message here is that it’s fun and good.
This tiny neighbourhood Italian restaurant is pitched perfectly for local and wandering food fans alike, offering big bang for relatively little buck. The wine list is exciting, the pastas will haunt your dreams and if they have the fregola with chargrilled king it's essential that you order it.
No matter how many winning new enoteche chef-owner Andrew Cibej opens (see 121 BC and Berta) the demand for seats here never dwindles. The original recipe remains unchanged: a daily menu of imaginative, contemporary Italian fare scrawled on the walls, packing them in for lunch and overflowing on to waitlists in the evening.
Order the Caponatina
This is a menu you’ll want to eat all of, either in one sitting with ten friends or ten sittings with one. Here they have a pizze list where each is better looking than the last. And they really are excellent, the bases are that magic mix of soft yet charred and blackened, beautifully seasoned and smoky.The reginella is Orazio’s ode to the Margherita: tomato, fior di latte and basil leaves – it's fresh, light and simple. But it might be the caponatina that thrills us most. Here, fior di latte is melted over the bottom with a fresh, slightly acidic relish of zucchini, capsicum, eggplant and tomato. The zinger here is the crumbly chunks of raw cheese that pop with every bite.
Order the Lucio
Here’s a fun fact: the shape you make when you fold a piece of pizza in half to eat it is called a libretto. Yup, just like in the opera. And you know you’re eating a good pizza when you can fold with ease. The list here is strictly classical (your Margheritas, your marinaras, your diavolas), though there are a couple of house specialties, such as the Lucio. Named for chef and owner Lucio de Falco, the Lucio is about the only acceptable half-and-half in town. It’s half a regular Margherita – thin-based yet puffy and charred on the sides – and half a ham-and-ricotta calzone. Can we get a mamma mia?
Order the Salamino Die-hard
Pizza Mario fans, breathe a sigh of relief: David Cowdrill’s spinoff restaurant, Da Mario, is serving the Salamino. If you’ve had the cheese-and-sausage pizza before, you know why this is the best news you've heard this month; if you haven’t, allow us to explain. The Salamino is your mouth’s new best friend: a thin, charred base all covered in melted mozzarella and big puddles of ricotta and spiced up with crisp curls of salami. It's soft and rich and runny and crunchy and salty and sweet and if you're anything like us, you'll fight like a fiend over the last piece – and then you'll order a second serve.
Order the Speck e funghi trifolati
These aren’t the can’t-get-it-through-the-doorway pizze of your American dreams – here they fit neatly on the plate, and there’s no need for a wire stand to get everything on the table. The piccantosa is maximum flavour for minimum fuss. It’s a pantry-friendly riff on a Margherita – when the basil plant is hibernating just swirl some pesto over the top, add some chilli and you’re good to go. The speck e funghi trifolati takes care of the toppings the piccantosa forgot. Mixed mushrooms are enmeshed in a cheesy web of mozzarella and then dressed in thin, gauzy strips of prosciutto.
Order the Pizza bianco
This tiny little shop is a loud and local slice of White Bay, offering traditional pizza from (gasp!) an electric oven. They’ve got some pretty strict rules here. Try ordering a ham-and-pineapple or a half-and-half and you’ll be laughed out of Balmain. But there’s no need for a Tropicana when you’ve got a Margherita. As much as we always enjoy that classic of tomato, Italian buffalo mozzarella and basil, it’s Rosso Pomodoro’s pizza bianco – potato, Italian sausage and rosemary – that gets our vote. The pizza base is charred and bubbly, yet soft and yielding. The sausage is broken into little chunks, flavouring the thin, starchy slices of potato, all perfumed by the rosemary.
Order the Via Napoli Salsicce e friarielli
Here comes fun. And we mean it. Never has Lane Cove seemed like a more attractive place to take a long Friday lunch. Inside, the huge wood-fired pizza ovens are getting a thorough workout as the burly-armed pizzaioli push huge wooden paddles laden with pizza in and out. It’s here that you can eat a two-metre-long pizza. That’s the equivalent of just under two Kylie Minogues, toe-to-toe. It’s also about eight Minogues worth of lunch. Go for a metre-long pizza with your choice of toppings if you’re not feeling quite as ambitious.
Order the Brandi
The lights are low, the chatter is jovial and the pizza is excellent at the Surry Hills arm of Bronte’s favourite pizza parlour. They have eight pizze on the menu that can be ordered bianchi (white) or rosso (red). The Brandi is as rigid as a military guard when it comes to following the rules for an AVPN-approved Margherita: six orbs of DOP cheese, a vermillion tomato base and four fresh basil leaves on top. The careful layout looks like an edible quilt piece, and straight out of the oven the bases here have just enough structural integrity to get the food to your mouth without it dropping in your lap.
Order the Peperone Rosso
Turns out pizza without cheese is still bloody excellent. Sure, there were a lot of naysayers on the internet when Gigi on South King Street changed to a plant-based menu, but they were wrong, because a chewy, wood-fired pizza base covered in a layer of sweet golden tomato puree and tender ribbons of capsicum gets all the umami depth it needs from a liberal dose of olive tapenade, capers, chilli, oregano and olive oil. The salty, savoury and spice trifecta hits all the right flavour zones on your tongue – we swear you won’t even miss the mozzarella. Don’t believe us? Just try getting a table – it’s a packed house every night.
Order the Sorbello
The Sorbello pizza is named for the farm where they source their tomatoes (you can grab some yourself at their stall at Carriageworks Farmers Markets on Saturdays – Brent Savage of Bentley, Monopole and Yellow goes there to collect his). It’s a margherita boasting thin, crisp edges (not much of a puffy crust though) with juicy tomatoes that pop in the mouth like sweet little lollies. Treat yourself to a Brash Higgins SHZ Shiraz from McLaren Vale on the side, on a list designed by James Hird (Ex-Wine Library) – it’s spicy, leathery and deeply noted with dark fruit.
Order the Donzelletta
We’re more than a little in love with Popolo. From their excellent Italian wine and beer selection to the personable service to Negronis and slices of cured ham at the bar, we can’t get enough. They even do weekend breakfasts. But right now we’re all about the pizza. You might try pizze such as their principessa – a luxed-up Margherita with buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil. The donzelletta is a monster of cow’s-milk mozzarella, thin slices of golden potato, sausage and ricotta. You might want to come armed with a fistful of Lipitor for that one. Bases come pliable and bubbly, ready to be folded like paper planes – destination, your maw.
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