Honest goodness... owner Silvana Allen at her modest shop. Photo: Edwina Pickles
'You haven't been here before, have you?'' a voice from behind the glass display cabinets says. ''No, I haven't,'' I say, peering around, and out pops a diminutive woman with bright brown eyes. She's putting a small beef pie in a paper bag and before I can say ''thank you'', she says, ''Just try it. Once you do you'll be back. That's what I do with all the people who come here for the first time.''
Before anyone thinks that, a) this happens to me regularly, and, b) I don't pay my way, let me scotch those thoughts. Neither is true.
It is true that Silvana Allen's unconventional marketing must be pretty effective. She has survived two recessions and 26 years selling homestyle food at the bottom of a bland blonde-brick apartment block. No ads, no flyers, no Facebook.
Off the shelf ... beef burgundy pie. Photo: Edwina Pickles
No glamorous decor, either. Boxes crowd the floor. Tinned pantry staples sit on hanging shelves. Lasagne is packed on styrofoam and covered in cling film. Casseroles and stews are spooned into foil containers. Handwritten labels are stuck on the fridges. Some of the items in cabinets don't have labels so you have to guess what they are.
Or ask Allen. She's a one-woman show at Avenue Road Providores, serving, cooking and baking an extraordinary variety of take-home food and prepared meals. Lamb is prepared not one, not two but three ways: Irish stew, shanks with wild oregano and lemon, and spicy curry.
At least eight soups are on offer at any time, from mulligatawny to mushroom, and chicken laksa to minestrone. Ditto the number of salads, which include walnut and cheddar, baby beetroot and carrot, Singapore noodles, chickpea and tomato and coriander, two kinds of potato, and a whole lot more.
She's probably supplied half of Mosman with its meals over the years. You could fill your freezer with Italian meatballs, shepherd's pie, coq au vin, butter chicken, Thai chicken curry, crumbed schnitzels, chilli con carne, tuna casserole, Penang fish fillets, moussaka, osso buco, even a chicken bolognaise as well as a regular bolognaise.
Allen's multicultural palate has its roots in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where she was born; her catering background; and her mother's commercial cooking.
Her parents migrated to Melbourne when Allen, 54, was three. Her mother was a marvellous cook who earned her living running kitchens at the likes of the Slovenian Club in Canberra, where the family moved when Allen was 13.
Allen began cooking for her siblings before she was a teenager. She left school at 14 and, following her mother's lead, worked at the Slovenian Club bar for several years. She became a manager at the Australian National University's staff centre for six years before moving to Sydney and working in hospitality.
She did silver-service functions in private homes around Mosman in the 1980s and that's when she bought Avenue Road Providores. She introduced to the shop what was then the height of entertaining fashion: terrines, pates and a signature crab mousse. ''That crab mousse got me through in the beginning,'' she says.
The first recession in the early 1990s hit hard. Jams got her through that one, especially her pear and cinnamon jam. ''It was so quiet, I had plenty of time to make them,'' she says.
She no longer has time to make jam or to do as much baking as she used to. She still makes her own Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, honey-glazed ham and rare roast beef. But she buys a range of old-fashioned treats such as caramel slices, pink lamingtons, hedgehogs, cherry chocolate slices and rocky road from Sticky Foods.
A local Italian woman makes ricotta cheesecakes and lemon flans, while Bush Cookies and Jepska biscuits round out the sweets.
Allen has survived the latest recession, too, though the GFC hit hard. ''I'm only just starting to recover in the past few months,'' she says. What got her through this time was her honest-tasting, soundly made, family-friendly food.
Avenue Road Providores
46-48 Avenue Road, Mosman, 9969 8825
Beef burgundy family pie, $21.50/1kg.
Chicken and asparagus casserole, $17.90/700g.
Family apple crumble, $21.90/1kg.