Warm and unassuming: Darlinghurst's Sagra. Photo: James Brickwood
"They won't let us take it off the menu" is a familiar refrain from chefs and restaurateurs, although I'm never quite sure if they're complaining or bragging.
A restlessly creative chef might rage against cooking the same food night after night, but any small business owner would be thrilled to have something that people will return for time and again.
So why would a new Italian diner in Stanley Street open in this dodgy economic climate with a daily-changing menu that really does change radically and regularly?
Plenty to choose from: Ricotta ravioli with cherry tomatoes is one of many quality pasta dishes. Photo: Rachel Murdolo
You might, as I do, love the big worms of Tuscan hand-rolled pici pasta ($15) coated in a sludge of ox-heart tomato sugo, oregano and garlic, but it wouldn't pay to get too attached to it. Next time you drop in, it could be stracci with figs and guanciale or squid ink tagliatelle with mussels.
The menu, sensibly, is a modest one - just four antipasti, four primi (pasta dishes) and two secondi or main courses, usually one meat-based and one fish. While all chefs claim to be seasonally driven, owner/chef Nigel Ward has clearly adopted the Italian-mamma approach, making the most of each season and not letting a skerrick go to waste.
Formerly of Lucio's, Sean's Panaroma and London's Trullo, Ward bakes his own bread, makes pasta from scratch, bottles his own preserves and buys whole beef and pork carcasses through Feather & Bone.
These are utilised over a period of weeks as each cut is ready, so a red angus might mean flank steaks for the grill; the topside chopped into a beef tartare, and the shoulder turned into a rich ragu with pappardelle. Or not.
Sagra is the name given to small, village food festivals of the pig-killing and tomato passata-making variety. Here, it means a small corner terrace with tractor-seat stools at wooden counters on the street-front verandah, and an unassuming dog-leg dining room with a small service bar with windows open to the street - but for one that opens onto a brick wall, sweetly tarted up with potted plants. A few jars of preserves and a big red Berkel meat slicer make up the rest of the decor, which is to say, not much.
The food is simple, modest and good; especially a starter of crisply fried batons of zucchini dibby-dabbed with gorgonzola and drizzled with Mudgee honey ($16), which is worthy of special dispensation as a permanent menu inclusion. Other entrees are pleasant enough - curls of grilled squid teamed with rocket, olives and chilli ($18), say - but the zucch is mandatory. If it's on.
Pasta is ''I'm-back-in-Italy'' good; discreetly portioned so you can actually have it as a first course. It's just as discreetly coated with simple, fresh, minimalist sauces of few ingredients.
Mains are both elegant and homely; the tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder ($28) coming with a cap of crisp crackling, a gravel of borlotti beans and bitter, wilted chicory straight out of an Italian family's Sunday lunch.
Desserts have seen a light, rich smash-up of meringue, fresh peach and whippy mascarpone ($12), and several variations on that theme.
Don't get too attached to the short and sweet all-Italian wine list or the peachy, muscular 2012 La Vaglie Verdicchio ($12/$55), either. The two frizzante, five whites and five reds change every fortnight, and the blackboard specials are scarred with cross-outs.
Yet for all the weekly and even daily changes, the style of the menu, the osteria-simplicity of the cooking and the personal, Italian service alter very little, making dining at Sagra both surprisingly consistent, and consistently surprising.
Best bit: The personal, hands-on approach
Worst bit: Parking is a nightmare
Go-to dish: (Any) pasta of the day, $15-$19
- 02 8307 0430
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - About $90 for two, plus wine
- Features - Accepts bookings, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Nigel Ward
- Opening Hours - Lunch Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm; Dinner Mon-Sat 6-10.30pm
- Author - Terry Durack