1 Barangaroo Ave Barangaroo, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch daily noon-2.30pm; dinner Sun-Thu from 5.30pm; Fri-Sat from 5.45pm|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Phone||02 8871 6360|
When Alessandro Pavoni of Ormeggio at The Spit declared his new waterside restaurant at Crown Sydney to be a return to the glamorous, service-oriented dining rooms of the past, the words "Oh dear" came to mind. The last thing we need, I thought, is a big, expensive, pretentious restaurant.
Certainly, a'Mare is big, with two levels of dining (downstairs is best) and a broad terrace laid out before the bay views across to Balmain.
At last count, the floor staff numbered 100 and they're still hiring. If you're not careful, you'll be greeted by four different smiling people at the door, and escorted to your table past white-suited bartenders who call out cheery greetings.
There's no time to take in the lavish decor by Piedmont designer Michela Curetti. Inspired by the palazzos of Venice, Milan and Lake Garda, it's nevertheless a resolutely modern, dynamic, decorative space of angles, light and stylised sculptures.
It's also pinch-yourself, is-this-Capri? expensive. Bistecca fiorentina from Sardinian-born head chef Marco Putzolu's Josper charcoal oven is $160 for 1.2kg; caviar is $295; spaghetti chitarra with lobster is $225; and a one-kilogram veal cutlet milanese is $180. The cheapest antipasto dish is burrata caprese ($29); others rise to $59.
What it isn't, however, is pretentious. There's too much joy and pride and skill for that. All eyes follow restaurant manager Alice Perini as she wheels a giant Carrara marble mortar to the table, along with mise-en-place of fresh basil, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, toasted macadamias and pine nuts, and grated pecorino and parmigiano cheeses.
Using an olive wood pestle, she pummels and pounds with precision, until the glossy green pesto is beautifully emulsified. At the right moment, out comes the hand-shaped trofie from the kitchen, to be tossed and served.
It's a real treat, the pasta nicely chewy, and the sauce rich, oily, nutty, cheesy and fragrant. At $35, trofie al pesto is good value for dinner and a show.
Head sommelier Francesca Pellegrino walks me through the substantial, Italian-driven wine list as if flipping through a family photo album. It's a chi e chi (who's who) of Italian names that shows off the country's diversity, from a soft, drinkable 2018 Massolino Dolcetto d'Alba from Piedmont ($105) to a clean, steely 2019 Graci Etna Bianco ($20/$90) from Sicily.
Silly me, I'm wearing a white linen shirt, and there's no way I'm ordering the risotto nero e bianco ($45). So I return later for the silky, black-as-pitch squid ink rice, drizzled with the spidery trail of a buttermilk, white wine and vinegar emulsion.
But wait. Those aged Carnaroli rice grains aren't all rice. Half of them are tiny pieces of squid cut to resemble rice, which lightens the intensity and density. That's actually brilliant – like, Gualtiero Marchesi, Carlo Cracco, Fulvio Pierangelini, famous-Italian-chef brilliant. A great dish.
Also enjoyed: confit-cooked Glacier 51 toothfish on a dusky, musky pond of baby octopus, cuttlefish and mussels ($57). Tagliata of wagyu bavette ($74), listed at a hefty 9+ marble score, served like a ruby-red deck of cards on a lively "pizzaiola" salsa of tomato, garlic and black olives.
A Sardinian-inspired dish of smoky char-grilled Moreton Bay bug ($59, yikes) seems clunky by comparison, not done any favours by too much dressing.
The gueridon (tableside) service is a real point of difference, so be sure to order burrata and green tomato caprese, lobster spaghetti, or whole fish – but especially, gelato.
A pure white, smooth, stretchy gelato fior di latte ($20) is offered from the gelato cart, with a choice of toppings. You have to have the sour, bright Amarena cherries produced by Fabbri in Ferrara. No, the elegant pistachio cream. No, the cherries.
There's no doubt a'Mare is both big and expensive. But that's what makes it possible for Alessandro and Anna Pavoni to build such a proud, skilful team of Italian professionals, and for them to deliver such a grand, nostalgic Italian dining experience.
Vegetarian: Scattered throughout menu, from trofie al pesto to burrata caprese.
Drinks: Classic and signature cocktails, Italian beers, and a mighty Italian-led wine list with only a handful of bottles under $100.
Pro tip You have to have the trofie al pesto, done tableside.