Crowd-pleaser: Artusi knows what the locals want. Photo: Fiona Morris
Long before boffin chefs Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal picked up a test tube, Pellegrino Artusi was writing about ''the science of the kitchen''. His book of that title was first published in 1891 with the all-important sub-title of ''and the art of eating well''. So anyone who names their restaurant Artusi should reasonably be expected to deliver both.
Chef and co-owner Luca D'Adamio has cooked his way around the world, including the luxurious Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli on Italy's Lake Garda, before opening Artusi in Castlecrag in April this year. But there is no kitchen laboratory, no clouds of liquid nitrogen, nor orbs of gel. Instead, what we have is a natural crowd-pleaser that knows just what the locals want.
I say crowd-pleaser because the long, golden-hued dining room is packed with people who all look pleased to be here. At the rear, a family group of 14 gathers around a large, long table; another celebratory group of 12 is at the front by the window, and a table of eight lines the wall. It gives the room a Sunday-lunch air, even on a chilly Friday evening.
Go-to dish: Pasta alla chitarra, ragu della mamma come prima. Photo: Fiona Morris
The menu is full of crowd-pleasing food, too; solid, recognisable Italian dishes with a few personal flourishes - calamari, carpaccio, pasta al ragu, osso buco and, of course, tiramisu. There's even a crowd-pleasing menu for the bambini, running from pizza margherita to chicken schnitzel.
Floor staff greet you with warmth and knit you into their well-run operations within minutes - perhaps even seconds - of being seated. Menus are presented, drink orders taken and bread offered. The latter comes as a generous slate board of lightly grilled bread, crisp sheets of pane carasau, and slender stalks of grissini served with a little bowl of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar ($6.50).
The first courses come fast. Another slab of slate bears nutty, Italian prosciutto, furled and sliced as thickly as one would slice Spanish jamon; with a whole, joyously fresh, white, fluffy pom-pom of imported buffalo mozzarella; a crowd-pleaser in its own right.
Another Italian restaurant standard of tuna carpaccio ($23) was less appealing, the tuna a little too thin and too cold to taste of very much at all. The supposed bonus of a curl of firm, chewy, grilled cuttlefish added little.
The space is warm and personable, with a generous bar/counter, exposed brick walls, white-clothed tables and striking wooden banquettes scattered with throw cushions. It's also loud - the sort of loud that means people are talking and having fun, but also means the waiter might mishear your order.
So, all very crowd-pleasing, but nothing very boat-rocking … until the pasta turns up. The dish of the night is Artusi's fresh house-made pasta alla chitarra ($26), served with ''ragu della mamma come prima'' (ragu like mamma used to make). The pasta strands are supple, fine and yet still al dente; perfectly fused with a long-flavoured tomatoey ragu that combines slow-cooked pork, veal and lamb shoulder. It's a total crowd-pleaser, if only for a crowd of one.
Zuppe di pesce of barramundi, mussels, clams and prawns in a thick tomato broth ($34) sounds like a winner. It looked like a winner, too, in its large, shallow, glazed terracotta bowl. Sadly, however, it was so hot the sauce was seething, not only overcooking the seafood but also making it difficult to eat.
The wine list is short and sweet, with prices that make it barely worth considering the midweek BYO option. A few Australasian bottles add local vernacular to the popular Italian selection, which includes that old faithful, Masi Bonacosta Valpolicella Classico. A supple, silky red from Italy's Veneto region, it's the most expensive bottle on the list at $42.
A contrary order for the crostata di limone ($12) instead of the ever-popular tiramisu produces an individual (and very tart) lemon tart with quite thick pastry, served with an equally tart lemon sorbetto.
Artusi seems perfectly content to serve up familiar food in familiar surroundings, backed by a reassuring and innate sense of Italian hospitality. Just as content as the crowds it seems to be pleasing - proving yet again that ''the art of eating well'' is just as important as ''the science of the kitchen''.
It feels like one big dinner party.
Things can get noisy.
Pasta alla chitarra, ragu della mamma come prima, $26.
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.
- 02 9967 5371
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - About $120 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed, BYO, Family friendly
- Chef(s) - Luca D'Adamio
- Owners - Luca d'Adamio, Paola Bamonte
- Opening Hours - Lunch Sat-Sun; dinner Tues-Sat
- Author - Terry Durack