4-12 Garfield Street Five Dock, New South Wales 2046
You know you're on a winner, or at least a contender, when the newish restaurant you have been eyeing off is heaving with diners, despite no serious publicity and being virtually hidden from view above a supermarket.
We heard about Gatto Matto Trattoria, which opened in January, from a friend's wife's mate's barber - or some such tenuous connection - and it seems plenty of other locals have, too.
The restaurant's gregarious owner and chef, Paolo Gatto, began his career at 13, as a waiter in his uncle's restaurant in Sicily, before working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Taormina and at De Pisis in Venice, among others. He moved to Australia four years ago, landing at Cucinetta in Woolwich, Limoncello in Double Bay and Il Locale in Haberfield, where he familiarised himself with the Australian market.
Paolo and his wife, Rita, have created an inviting two-room restaurant, offering traditional and contemporary Italian fare.
They take their illumination seriously, with tea lights, downlights and wall lamps producing a relaxed and calm atmosphere without being too bright. White tablecloths, muted-coloured walls and polished surfaces lend the venue a slightly plush air, while the candy-stripe bank seats and crimson curtains create enough fun for a casual night out.
We've scored either the worst or the best table, a perch by the half-open kitchen where Paolo and his staff get to work on the starters while the affable waiters attend to the guests.
We begin with deep-fried green olives encrusted in golden breadcrumbs. The crunchy exterior contrasts well with the soft fruit, and further inside are a couple of delicate almond pieces.
The pizza arrives, an Italiana, with tomato, mozzarella, rocket, prosciutto and parmesan. Served on a raised platter, it's one of the handsomest I've seen and comes with lashings of colour and melted gullies of cheese here and there. The base is great, too; crusty and golden on the outside, with a soft and satisfying chewiness inside.
Next we dose up on seafood: a platter of grilled fish, baby octopus, prawns and scampi. It's summery and bright, served on a bed of rocket drizzled with olive oil.
The recipe for pasta ca muddica, a traditional Sicilian spaghetti dish with white anchovies, sultanas and pine nuts, comes from Paolo's grandmother but my companion prefers the sound of the pasta cu pisci spada, which comes with fennel, cherry tomatoes and small cubes of swordfish. Simple yet delicious.
Our final main is a surprise. As the menu explains, Paolo enjoys a challenge, so we ask him to whip up something with chicken. A roulade of sorts arrives, which includes mascarpone, ricotta and basil in a balsamic reduction atop truffle mash. It's juicy and tender, and delivers rich, hearty flavours.
We finish with a few treats: chocolate mousse, gelato-filled cannoli and pan-fried berries, kiwifruit and pineapple, topped with gelato and cinnamon. They're as simple and satisfying as the rest of the dishes.
Paolo makes a point of having a chat with all the diners. He thanks us for coming and asks how we found the meal. Lovely, we reply, we'll pass on the word.
Menu Simple, yet sophisticated, traditional and modern Italian fare.
Value Good. Entrees, $10-$18; mains, $15-$33; dessert, $8-$11.
Recommended dishes Misto di pesce grigliato (grilled seafood); Italiana pizza.
GATTO MATTO TRATTORIA
Level 1, 4/12 Garfield Street, Five Dock, 9712 7770
Sat-Sun, lunch noon-3.30pm; Tue-Sat, dinner 6-10.30pm
Licensed, $2 corkage for set menu