Icon review: Bar Italia

Bar Italia is frequented by everyone from professional rugby league players and school kids buying gelato with pocket change.
Bar Italia is frequented by everyone from professional rugby league players and school kids buying gelato with pocket change. Photo: Edwina Pickles

169 Norton Street Leichhardt, New South Wales 2040

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Opening hours Sun-Thu 8am-11pm; Fri-Sat 8am-midnight
Features Outdoor seating
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments Cash Only
Phone 02 9560 9981

"No soy, light or skim milk. Cash only." If Norton Street was The Pantheon, these words would be inscribed on its frieze. At Leichhardt's focal point of spaghetti and short blacks, the commandments have been displayed above the cash register for as long as anyone can remember.

"We thought about taking the sign down and relaxing the rules, but it's such an important part of the cafe's history we just couldn't," says Con Damouras. The veteran restaurateur owns Bar Italia in partnership with his wife of 35 years, Sarina Ruffino Damouras, his sister-in-law and her husband (Angela and Marcello Menga), and best mate Maurizio Costuzzi.

Damouras has fond childhood memories of visiting Bar Italia for gelato after service at St Gerasimos Greek Orthodox Church nearby. "Mum told me that Dad used to have a bit of a flutter in the courtyard, too," he says. When previous owner Peter Cama decided to sell in 2014, Damouras couldn't pass up the opportunity to own a Sydney icon.

Bar Italia's famous tiramisu gelato.
Bar Italia's famous tiramisu gelato. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Red sauce runs thick in his family's blood. Sarina Ruffino Damouras and her sister are daughters of Luigi Ruffino, a Sicilian migrant who pioneered Italian cooking in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. Affectionately known as "Papa Luigi", Ruffino was awarded an MBE in 1979 for services to central Australia and had a park in Alice Springs named after him last year.

With the exception of a few cosmetic tucks, Damouras and his family have kept Bar Italia unchanged. Terrazzo tiles still run the length a dining room decorated in a grungy mix of Godfather prints, il Tricolore flags and framed Beatles LPs (former owner Cama was a big Fab Four fan).

When the restaurant began life in 1952, the Sicilian-owned eatery was a place for Italian men to drink crema-topped espressos and play cards without their wives. Today it's frequented by anyone who has a pulse: silver-haired couples, nostalgia-hunting millenials, Newstart recipients (prices are competitive and corkage is free), professional rugby league players and school kids buying gelato with pocket change. Italian gentlemen with Sopranos haircuts still visit for controlled arguments about Serie A and the Inner West Council.

The Bar Italia signature spaghetti.
The Bar Italia signature spaghetti.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Sure, there are better pasta dishes in Sydney, with fresher spaghetti and slower-cooked ragu, but I've never had a $16.50 fettuccine at Bar Italia I didn't enjoy. My go-to is the Sicula – a fuss-free tussle of bacon, chilli, garlic and olive oil I've made at home a thousand times. More popular is the Bar Italia house special spaghetti ($18.50), which is basically just the Sicula with prawns.

Chicken parmigiana ($19.50) is the other big seller, because of course it is. (How the frankly odd combination of chook, cheese and tomato became Australia's national pub dish is a three-pipe mystery, Watson.) Veal boscaiola ($19.50) is a winner, though, with flattened steaks and three veg barely visible under a sauce of cream, mushrooms, bacon and more cream. It's what you want to eat on a cold night in front of the telly and never discuss with your dietitian.

All gelato remains house-made and a scoop of the tiramisu signature ($4.50) is the perfect accompaniment for a Norton Street passeggiata. Sicilian pistachio, caramelised fig and zuppa inglese are other noble flavours.

With the exception of a few cosmetic tucks, Damouras and his family have kept Bar Italia unchanged.
With the exception of a few cosmetic tucks, Damouras and his family have kept Bar Italia unchanged.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Hot for a soy latte? Head to any of the hundreds of other Sydney cafe's Bar Italia paved the way for. Keen on Hawaiian pizza with jet black coffee more reliable than a Fiat 500? Come in! Order at the counter. Sit down. Relax.

Lunga vita, Bar Italia. You are loved.

Est. 1952

Signature dishes: Chicken parmigiana ($19.50); veal with artichokes and white wine ($19.50); schnitzel with spaghetti bolognese ($22.50); Bar Italia spaghetti ($18.50); baked ricotta cake ($6); tiramisu gelato ($4.50).

Famous diners: Colin Friels, Keanu Reeves, Tara Brown, Joel Edgerton, Vince Colosimo, Vince Sorrenti, Sisto Malaspina, Rose Byrne.