119 Sailors Bay Road Northbridge, NSW 2063
Let's discuss chicken and pizza for a moment. In the US, chicken has experienced a 26 per cent increase in use as a pizza topping in the past three years, according to market research company Mintel.
It's happening here, too, and at Cervo, a handsome new Italian hunting-lodge lookalike in Northbridge, the menu lists no fewer than four chicken pizzas.
There's chicken tandoori with Spanish onion, shallots, plum sauce and tzatziki; chicken with pineapple, spinach and fetta; piri piri chicken; and barbecue chicken, topped with pumpkin, sour cream and basil.
Now here's the thing. I was brought up to believe that chicken has nothing to do with pizza; that chicken on a pizza was the sign of a chef who had taken a wrong turn, someone who was incapable of understanding the greatness of working within the time-honoured limitations of tomato, mozzarella and basil.
In fact, there is a margherita pizza as well, which has neither been tandooried nor pineappled. But then there's pizza with chorizo, garlic oil, smoked mozzarella, piquillo pepper and olives, and another with shredded roast lamb, peppers, rocket and tzatziki. The purist in me is screaming but the rest of me, which is by far the majority, is curious.
Why not put your favourite flavours on a flat-bread base? What's the real difference between Italian pizza crust and Indian flat bread, between tzatziki and raita? Isn't this what we are allowed to do in Australia, to explore all the great cuisines and put them together in a way that suits us?
So here goes, head first into an American-inspired barbecue carne pizza ($19.50) topped with ham, salami, chorizo and smoky barbecue sauce. It sort of works, too, in a non-Italian, new-Australian way. It has the crisp, crusty, thin base of fashion pizza and an almost lacquered top, the rounds of finely sliced meats fusing to the base like tiles melting on a rooftop. The smoky, sweet sauce dominates the pizza's own smokiness, but what the hell, it's fun. Nor does it go all soggy in the middle. I'm starting to think that an imaginative pizza in the hands of a good cook is preferable to a traditional pizza laden with cheap cheese and oil in the hands of a kitchen casual.
As with the pizzas, disparate influences have been used in assembling the restaurant. The base is contemporary hunting lodge, with a nightclub topping. It's all timber cladding, exposed-wood floors, studded banquettes, a moodily lit central bar and various deer motifs, including a huge stag's head on the wall.
With "cervo" being Italian for "deer", you might expect venison pizza, but no. Chef James Alam, who previously cooked at Cala Luna, introduces venison to the menu only as a first course of carpaccio ($17.90). It's a highly styled platter of eight fine, transparent discs of rosy venison, each touched with dots of tarragon emulsion and a curve of golden beetroot. Each slice being thin enough to be a DNA sample, it quickly disappears, leaving the appetite untouched.
Special mention should go to the assaggi (appetisers) and sides on the menu, for both theory and practice. Two arancini ($5.90) are plump golden balls of rice, heady with mushroom and mozzarella, and I can hear raves from a family of blonde locals nearby about the plate of cured meats ($24.90) and the pizza crust with sea salt and rosemary ($8).
There are pasta dishes, an eye fillet of beef and the obligatory pork belly, but the star is braised lamb shoulder ($25.90). The soft meat has been pulled, shredded and formed into a giant polpettone meatball, served with a sweet carrot puree and a scattering of potatoes and broad beans. It chums up instantly to a spicy, equally round, 2010 Prunotto Barbera d'Alba ($36) from a compact wine list that's serviceable without being overly stimulating. There's a generous offer of $6 BYO charge a bottle. The service is good-natured, with that particular sort of Italian waiter who is only happy when busy and doesn't quite know what to do with himself when he is not.
Desserts have a retro feel – classic tiramisu, chocolate marquise, vanilla bean panna cotta. If the panna cotta ($9.90) is any indication, they're well made and free of surprises. That's probably wise, given that anyone who needs surprises would have ordered the tandoori chicken pizza with plum sauce and tzatziki.
Best bit The smart designer makeover.
Worst bit An early-days lack of buzz.
Go-to dish Braised lamb shoulder with carrot puree and fava bean, $26.90.
How we score
Terry Durack is a reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.