We sent wordy celiac (and compulsive snob) Grant Spencer on a mission to uncover Sydney’s more, how do we put it, “surprisingly” good eateries.
In the last decade, Sydney has made a transformation.
It has evolved from somewhere that assumed its status as an International City, relying on cultural diversity and via power as the hub of the country’s economic activity.
A rich city is very rarely in touch with how to give a voice to its diversity. No surprises, then, that there was a refreshing change with a reduction in cost of liquor licensing. This, combined with the militant exchange with our cheaper sister Melbourne and their eventual introduction of Hipsters into the local urban wilderness.
The city is now seeing the expression of itself through new theatre venues, dozens of cheaply themed small bars (and the inevitable mirroring of such in bigger venues) and great, new, affordable gastro-pubs that are offering a greater lure than a cut of meat the size of your head. All of a sudden a broader selection of people are finding a way to welcome people to their cafes, bars, theatres and gallery spaces in a way that would provide any international visitor with a deeper appreciation of our complex cultural language.
What of the value of the simple pleasures? Where are the great ten dollar schnitzels and the cracked plastic furniture precariously balancing your $5 glass of wine? As I can sometimes be a compulsive snob and obsessive for novelty, I have been swept up in Sydney’s small bar, degustation revolution, however, I grew up in the suburbs of Bankstown, with its fluorescent-orange sweet and sour Chinese food, crumbed sausages and Chiko Rolls.
Now, I have no interest in touring the city like an Oz Guy Fieri, pretending that cultivating heart disease is somehow more “authentically Australian”. Perhaps there is a middle ground. Venues that I know abound throughout the city, retain their popularity regardless. Can they drag, blinking into the light, the author as a western Sydney boy? That anxious little loud mouth who only really seems to rear his head after I’ve sunk a few too many?
The good overlords at The Big Smoke have tasked me to explore Sydney’s second-rate food serveries. I was resistant to the idea. I spent a lot of time and effort escaping my suburban roots. I even send out a Christmas text message to my friends every year which sends good tidings and gives another snarky insight into the more bogan flavour of a lunch at the Bankstown Sports Club. To give this mission a little more danger/irony, I was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease (my brother asked me if I caught it from living in Marrickville for too long). Well, it’s time to take an off-piste journey to places where the little GF (gluten-free) annotation may not be available. I am sure you are impressed with this feat of daring.
My first task was to head over to Leichhardt and feed at traditional Italian stalwart Bar Italia. The front of the venue is almost entirely dedicated to their gelato bar. I don’t think I have been here without a line-up of people becoming unusually aggressive about getting their fix. This is not a Messina-like Frankenstein offering of flavours, but simple and apparently delicious, traditional flavours of gelato. Tiramisu is the broadest experimentation. I’ll admit that I have had the gelato here before. The simplicity is reliable and all the flavours are satisfying, which comes as a refreshing change. It removes the anxiety of decision particular to the new Gelatissimos which can lead to a crippling mouth orgasm or the most mundane disappointment.
We escaped the bickering sweet-addicts and toward the restaurant proper. I shuffled into the line along the register and look up to the painted blackboard menus. Pizzas, pastas, salads, seafood and meats. The coffee machine has a sign that clearly states: “No Soy Milk, No Skim Milk, No Decaf” and “Cash Only”.
No fucking around.
I started to experience my first conflict. I value stripping back pretense, but in a world overtaken by inclusive options, when does this simplicity become its own pretense?
Did I mention I can’t drink whole milk anymore either? I didn’t tell my brother, it would have been too perfect.
Fortunately for my crippled gut, gnocchi is made from potato (but might have been rolled in flour). I’ve ordered the gnocchi gorgonzola with the rocket and parmesan salad from a man with a faint Italian accent.
We walked through a corridor-like side entrance and I start to relax. We stepped into what looked like a converted back yard. Plastic tables and IKEA chairs scattered about. There was a wall dense with dark green creepers and a Crepe Myrtle arching over half the dining area. It looked like my Grandmother’s backyard.
Offended by the nostalgia, my snark reared up on its hind legs. I noticed there are plastic vines wrapped around the awning, a deodoriser in the corner automatically sneezed every five minutes, above my head there was a string of the kind of multi-coloured light bulbs that were popular in the seventies. Cold, lifeless looking discarded pizza slices were strewn across the table next to us. There was a sense of disarray that seemed like laziness and felt like the disappointment of a teenager taken on another night to the Sporties.
My guard started to come down again as I fell into some people watching. Everyone was smiling. No one was taking photos of their food. No one got upset at the party for 14 that entered at 7:30pm and scraped tables together over the concrete floors. Some people were collared up, others in thongs and shorts. The head waiter swept in and delivered meals, every one of them announced in his most musical Italian accent holding just short of caricature. It was a performance, and an exaggerated one, but as I chuckled he met my eyes and laughed with me. He was sincere, buzzing with an earnestness to provide a good atmosphere.
My gnocchi was perfectly cooked, with a simple gorgonzola sauce, which despite my concerns was not at all too heavy. That said, I was very happy to have a side salad to cut through. It was a warm hug of a meal, it reminded me of visiting my wife’s Nonna. All of a sudden I found myself content and had no misplaced desire to hit up Trip Advisor and leave a passive aggressive message.
There is no worry about the bill at the end of the meal, whether you’re going to walk out hungry, or if the wine isn’t up to scratch (BYO only). The only reason I can think of that would have left me disappointed is if I had come here under the mistaken assumption of a delicately prepared taste adventure, which would be just stupid. Was this restaurant actually delivering me a privilege check? It was the kind of meal that is the precursor to a larger adventure, not a distraction or a destination. On another night, it could as easily be part of a simpler set of plans to go home early.
A pit stop you visit before a gig, or if you have children and don’t want to worry about them making noise or spilling stuff on the table.
Bar Italia is authentic no-frills, home-cooked Italian food with a vibe of familiarity that helps you feel part of a neighbourhood. Somewhere you will probably bump a friend and just join them at their table because you are more than likely aren’t interrupting anything too special. If the mood strikes you there is nothing prohibitive about the urge to visit. So, if no one around you can decide where to start the night, suggest Bar Italia.
If someone comes out complaining you’ll know who you don’t offer to buy a drink for when you go to the bar later on.
Do you have any suggestions or recommendations of a criminally underrated eatery in your ‘hood?
Let us know where in the comments part below!