Shop 9, 21 Fountain Street Alexandria, New South Wales 2015
Hub. It's the buzzword of the moment. Hubs are collaborative gatherings of like-minded people - what we used to call co-ops - and they're everywhere. They're the new business models for all sorts of new businesses, requiring all sorts of new business titles for, er, hubbists, from facilitators to team enablers to engagement specialists to connections catalysts (seriously).
There is such a hub at 21 Fountain Street, with Don Campos at one end showcasing specialty coffee-brewing techniques, the hippie-happy organic Bread & Circus cafe in the middle, a soon-to-open sourdough bakery and now, Cipro.
Cipro is a hub within a hub, a collaboration of long-time kitchen colleagues Khan Danis, Catherine Adams and Angel Fernandez. Between them, this talented trio covers hatty restaurants including Catalina, Flying Fish, Rockpool and Spice Temple, and until recently was busy plating up $115 wagyu rib eyes and $25 Black Forest trifles at Rockpool Bar & Grill. Now they huddle together in the pointy end of a warehouse in Alexandria turning out $6 pizza slices. If you graphed their career trajectories, would this be a sharp downturn, heading for the gates of hell with nowhere to go but an industrial canteen as the next step before oblivion? I think not.
Danis says the moment that led to the group's drastic life change came when they visited Rome's Pizzarium, run by Gabriele Bonci - dubbed the Michelangelo of pizza by Vogue Italia. Seeing the elemental nature of pizza al taglio (by the slice) raised by quality ingredients gave them the confidence to go out on their own and to keep things simple.
Like Pizzarium, Cipro is more functional than pretty, with its central open-plan kitchen, concrete factory floor, low-line tables, high benches lined with tall black stools, and a less-than-picturesque view of a shambolic building site next door.
A stand-and-order counter overseen by co-owner Penelope Watson, formerly of Rockpool on George, is stocked with slabs of artfully assembled pizze. Toppings are gastronomic and seasonal, so instead of capricciosa and Hawaiian, there's zucchini with mint and ricotta, chargrilled peppers, tuna and olives, and my new fave, sausage and peperonata - clumps of chorizo and 'ndjuja plopped on a squish of tomato and roasted red peppers ($9 a slab). The base is solid enough to get your teeth into, with real flavour of its own.
There's more than pizza, though not a lot more. A short menu lists snacky and shareable dishes from a generous salumi plate of prosciutto, bresaola and salami from Pino's Dolce Vita and Feather and Bone, to baked ricotta with ''Angel's mum's chilli salsa''.
A big bowl of chunky, tomatoey minestrone soup ($16) crammed with vegies, elbow maccheroni and borlotti beans, topped with glossy pesto and shreddy parmigiano, is warming and motherly. Arancini, those ubiquitous fried rice balls ($2 each), are filled with either peas and provolone, or pork ragu and stringy, gooey mozzarella. Crisp crunch. Soft squish. Gone.
A daily special of wood-fired grilled baby octopus with eggplant puree and lemon salsa ($16) is pleasing enough but might be better with larger, fleshier octopus. Better is a comfort-food chicken and salami cacciatore ($22), and a fresh, simple salad of iceberg lettuce, soft-boiled egg and anchovies ($9).
I don't want to set up any dessert wars but, for my money, Adams is the finest dessert chef to come from Neil Perry's richly endowed Rockpool group. Her dessert work is subtle, balanced - more experiential, as the hubbists would say. Here it gets showcased in a scoop of crunchy meringue passionfruit pavlova gelato ($3.50), and a startlingly soft, dark, flourless chocolate cake ($6) that is more like a cloud of chocolate air captured in cake form.
There are downsides to this neo-canteen style of eating - the scrabble for seats, the uneven waits for food, the queueing and re-queuing. Drinks options are appropriately simple, with just one beer, one white, two reds, and a sparkling, backed up by serious coffee from local roaster Hazel de Los Reyes of Coffee Alchemy. A good, honest 2011 Di Lenardo Pinot Grigio from Friuli ($8.50/$34) has a clean finish and fruit-bowl bouquet.
What started as an economic side effect is turning into a movement, as highly qualified chefs move further down the food chain to cook the sort of hands-on, artisanal food they like to eat. Witness Kitchen by Mike, Kepos Street Kitchen, Three Blue Ducks Cafe and more, many more, to come. Hubba hubba.
Best bit Great food without the fuss.
Worst bit The go-slow queue at lunchtime.
Go-to dish Sausage and peperonata pizza, $9.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.