“So this is the price I pay to dine with you,” says Joanna Savill, as she sits across from me along the 28-odd communal table at A Tavola, the newest eatery along Darlinghurst’s Victoria Street. I’ve just snapped a photo of Joanna, who’s here for a relaxed dinner, while I’m still in full-on work mode. That becomes extra apparent the moment I take out my notebook and begin scribbling in full view, to Joanna’s horror. She notices the kitchen suddenly staring at us through the open-window that peers into the dining room, and the diners next to us get inquisitive about who we’re writing for.
She’s probably used to being a bit less conspicuous, even though I’m sure she gets recognised often in restaurants. It’s hard not to when you’re the co-editor of the SMH Good Food Guide, a contributing writer to the Herald’s Good Living section, the co-author of the SBS Eating Guide to Sydney and the co-host of the SBS Food Lover’s Guide to Australia series. Yes, Joanna is a food diva, but what makes her most impressive is that she rarely acts like one.
Luckily for me, it’s still an enjoyable meal, and Joanna gets a kick out of my mint Vespa GT200 that’s parked out front. She’s married to an Italian, so I’d like to think there’s an extra level of appreciation. Having another food expert on hard with a deep knowledge of Italian culture also makes for a nice angle when reviewing this warm and inviting new Italian food destination, a groovy little room that seems to be a cross between Vini and Il Baretto. It has the warmth and cosiness of the former, and the simplicity and pasta focus of the latter. As always, it’s good to see a restaurant with focus.
And like Vini, the menu is postcard-sized, with far more specials available on dual chalkboards. The long, narrow room is in the space formerly occupied by another Italian mainstay, Tasso, although the similarities end at the square footage. The interior is highlighted by bulbous copper hanging lamps, a wall of black glass mirrors, and a 28-odd composite table that looks like a hazel marble punctuated with lightning strikes of cream and mocha. At the end of the table are splays of dried pastas, put out for obvious design aesthetic, but looking like they could be gathered up and thrown into a massive stockpot for a family feast (and I later read that they’re freshly made and laid out on the table to dry). The same goes for three horizontally hung wooden poles, strewn with strands of pasta, one on top of the other, and creating an edible veil over the window peering into the kitchen.
Running the kitchen at A Tavola is Eugenio Maiale, who built up a reputation in Adelaide at restaurants Citrus and Auge. We decide to start off with his stuffed Sicilian olives, filled with veal and deep-fried, and they are a lovely way to pass the time while we wait for our pasta mains to arrive. The meal gets off to a good start even prior to that, where crispy and fresh focaccia immediately arrives with a small bowl of green chilli oil. The oil has a strong kick to it, but I’m a big fan of heat.
The mains are notably absent of protein tonight, even though I later come across mentions of another night featuring blue-eye and osso buco dishes (via my old work haunt, yourRestaurants.com). Regardless, the menu looks enticing, and neither Joanna nor I are on the Atkins diet. She orders the stracci, which arrives as an appetising plate of handmade sheets of pasta, paired with luminescent-green broad beans, white asparagus and thinly sliced zucchini in a light tomato sauce. The sheets stick together somewhat, but other than that, the plate is a satisfying dose of hearty food that strikes a balance between skilled kitchen and home cooking.
I get the cigare al ragu, with pasta shaped like anorexic ziti, and which apparently get its name from a similarity to the shape of cigarettes (Google translates it as ‘cigars’, so I’m still clarifying). They’re made from dried pasta imported from Italy, or at least we assume they are, noting all of the boxes of imported pastas that sit on the wall behind Joanna. There’s a little bit of disappointment in the pasta not being handmade like the stracci, but the ragu still manages to lift the dish, coming to life with spice that is highlighted by what I guess is nutmeg, even as Joanna conjures up cinammon. Either way, the flavours add an extra layer of what’s a step above the usual meat sauce. We greedily down each of our dishes, each enjoying a glass of Italian wine from the small but pleasant selection. While the selection is nowhere near as involved as, say, Vini, I secure a pour of a fruity montepulciano that’s just the right fit for the rustic fare and relaxed neighbourhood vibe.
Hiccups mainly arrive with the service, where there’s no immediate greeting at the door, and, more notably, our bill processing takes ages. It also arrives with a fee for using Amex, and when Joanna asks to switch cards, the waitress says, a bit flippantly, that it’s ‘only a dollar’. We proceed, and then added insult comes when the bill arrives with a $3 Amex surcharge.
It’s a shame to end on a sour note, but such things happen at new restaurants. It’s a hope that things sharpen up as the floor staff settle in, and we do notice on departure a sign in the window looking for a quality front-of-house person. The food’s good enough that I’ll come back for another go, especially as I’m always a fan of small, familiar venues. Next time, I’ll also make sure to save enough room for the variety of desserts, which ranged on the night from an affogato with hazelnut ice-cream, a passionfruit and mandarin tart, tiramisu and an intricate rotolo. The cheese platter also looked promising, especially a variety with shaved truffles. But for tonight, it’s buona notte with a stomach full of pasta that has me ready for a good sleep.