88 Evans St Freshwater, NSW 2096
|Opening hours||Daily 11.30am-4pm; 5.30-10.30pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9071 8681|
Oh, wow. If you pay $6 to become a member of the Harbord Diggers Club, you get 10 per cent off your food and drinks at AcquaFresca by Pilu. Imagine if Quay and Sepia started doing that. I could save thousands of dollars.
Like most clubs, Harbord Diggers is trying to reinvent itself for a new world, spending $200 million on its iconic headland site, from a vast open-plan bar whose curves echo the northern beaches coastline, to a full suite of services from dining and fitness, to entertainment and "senior living residences".
This new world is populated by young mums with prams, lunching office-workers, and – the liveliest, as ever – groups of elderly women getting together over cheeky glasses of wine.
Giovanni Pilu, whose flagship two-hatted gaff Pilu at Freshwater is but a short Vespa ride away, has secured a prime corner position with glass bi-fold doors that open onto the ocean terrace, which Cottee Parker Architects has turned into a clean, bright space of stone archways, dramatic overhead lighting and open kitchen and bar.
Pilu and his head chef Rey Ambas ground the menu with easy, likeable Italian staples – puffy-crusted pizza and freshly made pasta, supported by classic antipasti, a handful of mains, and a fairytale gelato cart.
The red Berkel flywheel meat slicer parked like an Italian scooter at the door of the kitchen acts like a spruiker yelling "order the prosciutto". And I'm so glad I did. Principe's rosy, lean and fragrant San Daniele prosciutto ($23/ members $20) is beautifully handled, simply furled and sent out with paper-thin Sardinian crispbread and a few gnarly knobs of golden, dusky parmigiano.
It's a hit with a bright, juicy 2017 Colterenzio pinot grigio ($13 glass, $55 bottle/ less for members). A small platter of vitello tonnato ($23/members $20) looks the part with its smooth tuna cream topped with little flavour bombs of fried capers, but the paper-thin veal is dry and uninteresting.
Pizza comes hot, bubbly-crusted and dry-bottomed from the electric pizza oven, and there's real flavour in the dough, made with Sardinian stone-ground durum, spelt and semolina flour dough and leavened for about 48 hours, making it easier to digest.
Options range from classic margarita to not-so-classic patatine, topped with mozzarella and hot chips. A pizza piccante ($27/ members $24) isn't so piccante, the spicy 'nduja barely there amid good salami, fior di latte cheese and a strew of lovely caramelised onions. I get that the oldies probably found it too spicy, but maybe they could run it like the prices, with 10 per cent less chilli for members?
Gnocchetti-like Sardinian malloreddus shells ($27/members $24) is comfortingly blanketed with a lush, creamy pork sausage ragu and plenty of pecorino. There's more comfort to be had with yeasty, sugar-coated zeppole doughnut balls ($17/ members $15) with a strangely pasty vanilla custard.
It's more fun ordering gelato from the cart, in cone or cup, which happily reduces even 80-year-olds to little kids by the sea once again.
So it's no Pilu at Freshwater, but the food's good enough, staff are sweet, vibe is happy, and tables are set with gorgeous striped linen napkins rather than paper.
Plus, you can enter a draw to win a Harley Davidson XG500, valued at around $10,000. Bet you can't do that at Quay.
AcquaFresca by Pilu
Drinks: Italian beers on tap, three different negronis and a decent list of Italian varietals.
Vegetarian: Italian trattoria food is always co-operative, from insalata caprese to pasta, greens and meat-free pizze.
Go-to dish: Prosciutto di Parma Principe and parmigiano reggiano with carasau crispbread, $23 (members $20).
Pro tip: Skip dessert and grab a gelato to take out to the ocean terrace.
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.