Modern Italian ... Ormeggio's chefs are making waves. Photo: Fiona Morris
AH, THOSE WACKY ITALIANS. IN Milan, chef Carlo Cracco creates pasta from nothing more than dehydrated egg yolk, cut into strips. Davide Scabin of Turin's Combal Zero serves up liquid pizza. In Modena, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana prepares Five Ages of Parmigiano, the cheese served five ways: as a wafer, souffle, froth, cream and vapour.
You'd think those adventurous enough to leave Italy for the other side of the world would be even more radical, yet local Italian chefs are as respectful of tradition as they are mindful of modernity. So it takes a brave man to rock the boat and throw away the anchor of Italian culinary convention in a town that knows its tiramisu backwards.
Enter Alessandro Pavoni, who, appropriately enough, is surrounded by plenty of rocking boats at Mosman's d'Albora Marina.
Go-to dish ... Spanish mackerel sandwich, escarole, black olives, chickpea puree. Photo: Steven Siewert
This tall, broad-shouldered chef has always charted his own course. When Ormeggio opened in 2009, it featured the rustic, hunter-gatherer cooking of Pavoni's home region of Lombardy, with just the odd ripple of modernist cuisine to be seen. Then came an injection of contemporary thinking with the appointment of head chef Federico Zanellato, former chef de partie at Rome's ground-breaking La Pergola restaurant. When he was followed by talented sous chef Victor Moya Higueras and pastry chef Laura Ballester, fresh from Spain's fast-rising, Michelin-starred Paco Morales, the ripples became almost surfable waves.
The first thing to hit the table is a crisp, bubbly tapioca wafer dabbed with little splodges of creamy cheese, resting fashionably on slate tile. It tastes, rather amazingly, of mushrooms on toast, the tapioca having been cooked first in mushroom stock, then slow-dried, and fried.
Next up is a contender for Sydney's prettiest dish; a spring brandade ($25) that subverts the traditional brandade of salt cod and pureed potato, by making it with smoked eel and plating it with a toss of baby peas, broad beans, asparagus tips, pickled spring onion and an anchovy crumble. The addition of a foamy mussel emulsion isn't one of those ''oh groan, a foam'' moments, as it brings a clever, briny, punchy depth to the prickly, smoky flavours.
More new waves are evident in smoked linguine with braised cuttlefish ($26). A rolled knitting ball of Gragnano pasta from Naples has been finished in a smoked-fish stock, and served with strips of tender squid bathed in squid ink, baby zucchini slices, and little crisp batons of lightly battered zucchini flowers. The smokiness lifts it beautifully.
The wine list is also drawn from contemporary Italy, with some impressive local Italian food-friendly drops as well, such as a soft and silky, undemanding 2009 Principia Foris Pinot Noir from the Mornington Peninsula ($64).
Not surprisingly, a single brick of crisp-skinned suckling pig teamed with baby heirloom carrots and shimmering beetroot puree ($39) is more complex than it looks. After three hours of roasting, the meat is shredded from the bones, mixed with cooking juices, then packed back onto the skin, pressed and crisped in the pan before serving; a clever way to maintain traditional flavour while controlling the quality of the end result.
Now here's a thing of beauty - a Spanish mackerel sandwich ($37) that's really a fused-together finger of that lovely fish sandwiched with a mix of endive and dried olive, topped and bottomed with potato puree and crisp golden layers of brik pastry. It sits on a brushstroke of black squid ink with a puddle of chickpea puree and scorched lettuce, sending a strong message of craft, precision and strong, balanced flavours.
Need I warn you not to expect tiramisu? Instead, Ballester conjures up a botanical vision of carrot cake that involves carrot mousse, fennel-seed gelato, mint, chervil, fennel tops, dill and violets ($18).
Fellow diners do birthdays and business in time-honoured fashion, almost in spite of the contemporary nature of the food. The waterside location is charming, the room is elegant, and staff members show an almost palpable pride in the dishes they bring to the table.
With the menu advising that patrons order four dishes rather than three, it does end up an expensive proposition, however, and by that, I don't mean ''for an Italian restaurant''.
In fact, Ormeggio is as much a contemporary restaurant as it is an Italian one - which, of course, is what's happening in Italy, too.
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.
Worst bit The bill.
Best bit The craft inside, and the crafts outside.
Go-to dish Spanish mackerel sandwich, escarole, black olives, chickpea puree, $37.
- 02 9969 4088
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - About $220 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Alessandro Pavoni, Federico Zanellato, Victor Moya Higueras, Laura Ballester
- Opening Hours - Lunch and dinner, Wed-Sun
- Author - Terry Durack