You couldn't have any old bog-standard burger joint or frozen yoghurt store moving into the former Billy Kwong site on Crown Street. The elbow-knocking space Kylie Kwong made famous before relocating to Potts Point needed something special. Enter stage-right the team from A Tavola.
Eugenio Maiale, Ennio Di Marcos, Sandro di Marino and Luke Randall have knocked out a wall at Kwong's former Aus-Canto restaurant and turned it into a 70-seater casual bar and eatery they describe as "1960's Mad Men meets your Italian cousin's first Holy Communion party." A large part of this is thanks to a 10-metre bar made up of 96 Besser Blocks, the building material popular with Italian-Australians from a time when raindrops kept falling on John Farnham's head.
"Our parents would build their houses and front fences with Besser Blocks," says Maiale. "They just bring back our childhood, really. Coupled with the laminex tables we've used, the vibe is like an old garage or verandah."
Although he wasn't keen to open another A Tavola like in Darlinghurst and Bondi ("I always wanted to open one in the 'burbs and one beachside and that was it"), Maiale's food at Besser is still similar to the simple and authentic cooking at his pair of popular neighbourhood tratts. The difference is in the presentation and serving sizes.
"We've set up the menu differently," Maiale says. "It's designed so you can pop in for a glass of wine and something to nibble on, right through to a full-on, bring-it-on type of meal where you can sit down and share a whole a series of different plates."
Dishes include meatballs ($4 each), fried sardines with garlic mayo ($13), grilled octopus ($25), ossobuco ($27), and whole roasted chicken ($36).
Wine on tap is big in the United States and the Besser boys are giving Surry Hills a sip. Six Italian wines and two Victorian drops are available by the glass or carafe.
"We're trying to push good quality tap wine," says Maiale. "It's not cheap plonk. A lot of time has been spent talking to winemakers to get the wine to a point where instead of putting it in a bottle they can put the wine in container for us and fly it overseas, so we have clean, fresh wine with less preservatives."
It's not a tap-only osteria, however, thanks to an attractive list of bottled wine also sourced from Australia and The Boot, and a cocktail list that includes a Penicillin (Laphroaig 10-year-old whisky, Bowmore 10-year-old whisky, lemon, honey and ginger) and the Sicilian Julep (Averna amaro, limoncello, rye whiskey and kaffir lime).
Risotto fans are well advised to rock up by 6pm when each night the kitchen will take orders for a daily changing risotto, such as risotto alla Milanese finished with bone marrow poached in olive oil, and a pinch of gremolata.
"Risotto should always be cooked to order," says Maiale. "At six o'clock one of the guys will walk out and say 'we're cooking a risotto, would you like to order it?'. We cook it up and serve it half an hour later. You miss out, you come back the next night."
Open Mon-Wed 5pm-10pm; Thu and Sun noon-10pm; Fri-Sat noon-11pm.
Shop 3, 355 Crown Street Surry Hills, 02 9331 1611, besseritalian.com.au