There is such a thing as Italian food. Despite protestations from the bastion of culinary conversation (AA Gill circa 2011 ‘Italian food appears mostly in a bastardised, commercial form’– professing some truth, to an extent), Italian food does exist within a commercial forum. Maybe not in the British Isles, in which the Italian flavour can be obtuse, uneventful and victim of the British veneer, and consequently devoid of authenticity. Case in point; Carluccio’s, a mass-produced watered-down Italian trattoria which entreaties the middle class and bourgeoisie.
Draw attention to the indecent cousin of Britain; Australia however, and you’ll find the authenticity of Italian cuisine thriving rather than lacking.
Australia has one of the highest populations of Italians living outside of Italy. The Italian culture, flavour and attitude is integrated within the Australian way of life; Chianti replaces Shiraz, prosciutto supersedes spam, tiramisu now trumps the lamington.
This, in part, is due to the post-war migration of (mainly) southern Italians. Displaced and disconnected from a land ravaged by civil turmoil and totalitarianism, southern Italians emigrated to Australia en masse for permanent resettlement. The result is that Italian cuisine is firmly cemented within Australia’s gastronomy.
Like most places, Sydney is greedy and guilty of culinary plagiarism. Not boasting any distinct flavour or partiality in a taste of its own, the city has cunningly cross-pollinated flavours and ancient global recipes, mass produced and served al dente to the suburban set.
But, beneath the thick and penetrable layers of stale sun-drenched suburbia, authenticity does, against the odds, flourish.
It’s with this impulse and recognition that I land myself a fattened table (there are 20 of us) at Otto’s, Woolloomooloo Sydney. It’s a sultry mid-summer evening. Tanned bodies sashay in barely-there silk slips, crisp white shirts and chinos. There’s an effervescent glow encircling this former old cargo dock which is now a gentrified and ‘trendy’ dining area.
The conversation is loud, but pleasant, not aggressive nor antagonistic. There’s a mellow hum of people enjoying good food and even more wine. It’s the perfect environment to appreciate alfresco modern Italian dining.
The word ‘refined’ is an unfortunate over rinsed adjective in many 21st century restaurants. It’s often used as the cachet to encourage a few extra zeros at the end of the bill. But, done well and with panache, refined Italian food can be an absolute delight. Light, zealous, fresh yet fulfilling, it is a hard line to tread. Often, we can over refine Italian cuisine to the point that its hardly interesting or fun to eat. Thank goodness, Head Chef Richard Ptacnik at Otto’s Sydney understands how to combine Italian ambiance with authentic and delicious flavours.
Digestible and flavoursome dishes such as zucchini flowers, carpaccio, fresh pasta, locally-caught pesce and sustainably sourced carne remain the backbone to the menu. Unsurprisingly, considering the temperate all-year-round Sydney climate, Ptacnikhas discarded the heavier regional diet of osso bucco, rabbit pappardelle and boar ragu for lighter, coastal Italian flavours.
Boasting fresh, quality ingredients, Italian cuisine has always differentiated itself. Simple, yet effective with little or no spice, subtle flavour and delicate pairings (melon and prosciutto, an example). Gratifyingly, Otto’s successfully (as all fine-dining Italian restaurants who charge £20 or more for a pasta dish) ascertains a farm-to-fork menu. Owned by the Fink Family, they boast a close relationship with Nina and Richard Kalina, two farmers from the Blue Mountains. The result is fresh bucolic vegetables bursting with colour, texture and taste. An aubergine from a rustic farm on the Blue Mountains is far more pleasing on the palette then a squidgy, soggy and subpar suburban-grown variation from the ‘green loving’ set in Bondi.
Naturally, when enjoying the refinement of an Italian menu it’s important to take it leisurely – start with antipasti, followed by a primo, secondi, various contorni and lastly, dolce. The whole process should take approximately three hours. This is where the Brits get it wrong. Call it ‘roast dinner syndrome’ if you will, but we possess an obsession with an obese plate in which the meat, vegetables and carb fuse together to create one all-consuming taste. We enjoy a bloated, ceremonious dish with too much frill, confetti and fireworks. The Italians, by contrast, prefer a pared down iteration.
I start with the salt and pepper squid and lemon aioli, it’s hardly an Italian dish but I order it for purely nostalgic purposes. It’s the perfect first date; zesty, feisty, yet fickle enough not to linger too long on the mind or the tastebuds. I follow this with the more robust seared scallops, corn, mushroom and pancetta. The scallops are heavenly and cloud-like in their lightness. The pancetta is entirely what it promises: cured and slightly spicy and aromatic, and it pairs well with the scallops. The seamless harmony of these ingredients is intrinsic to Ptacnik’sgastronomic vision.
I am a great believer in matching my wine to my meat (as I am in matching my bag to my shoes, a habit installed in me by my mother) and tonight I uphold this ritual. We select a delightful Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige region. It goes down swimmingly, and quickly.
Strozzapreti king prawns, black olives, chili, tomato and calamari sauce is next, and needed after the light appetisers and vino. King prawns can be difficult to navigate in a pasta sauce (especially when not peeled, but they should never be pre-peeled), but I adjust accordingly (side note: never wear white to an Italian meal). The chili is subtle (thank goodness), the black olives add depth, the tomato fresh and the calamari sauce undetectable.
We continue with sea bass pan-fried in olive oil and lemon. The rest of the party enjoy the meatier side of the menu; hand rolled pici, Berkshire pork and fennel ragu (rich and fulfilling, the fennel not too overpowering), followed by a Tajima Waygu rump cap with green asparagus, spring onions and peppers (the Australians, thank goodness, are not averse to rare, blood-dripping meat, and subsequently this rump did not disappoint). We passed on a dolce and instead enjoyed a final tipple of the evening.
Simplicity of flavour is the key ingredient of Ptacnik. He doesn’t over embellish his dishes, nor does he try and justify the rather bourgeoisie price. He’s unapologetic in his simplicity, and this is what makes it such a delight. There were times when I felt that the minimalism was a little over-enforced, but overall it was an experience in how quality of ingredient can elevate a dish beyond anything that an expensive spice or rich sauce can do.
It was also a celebratory time; a moment in my life surrounded by family and friends on home soil. These times are precious and few. Living over 10 000 miles away doesn’t exactly endorse an easy Saturday night family meal. And Otto’s was the perfect backdrop to this occasion. It was welcoming, delicious and warm. The staff were friendly and helpful, the food appeased everyone’s palette. An unforgettable moment shared. It was a harmonious evening of cultural distinction and flavour, and throughout all of this Ptacnik’s fresh and simple menu fed, appeased and delighted.
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