Icon review: Buon Ricordo

Italian institution: A long lunch or dinner at Buon Ricordo is what life is all about.
Italian institution: A long lunch or dinner at Buon Ricordo is what life is all about. Photo: James Brickwood

108 Boundary Street Paddington, New South Wales 2021

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Opening hours Tue-Thu 6-11PM; Thu-Sat noon-3PM, 6-11PM
Features Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Degustation, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Private dining, Romance-first date, Events
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Armando Percuoco, David Wright
Seats 100
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9360 6729

When Tom Cruise enjoyed a particular wine so much at Buon Ricordo that he asked for two bottles to be sent to his hotel room, the restaurant's owner, Armando Percuoco, told the Top Gun star, "First, I don't deliver and second, I'm not a bottle shop." When football supporters were misbehaving during one service, Percuoco picked up a chair to break on their heads. The lads escaped before things got too WrestleMania.

Or so the stories go. Percuoco's temper is as legendary as his cooking and hospitality and long as you know your role as a civilised diner, you're almost guaranteed a beaut time at his restaurant. A fat wallet doesn't hurt either.

Cucina runs thick in the Percuoco blood. The family migrated to Sydney from Naples in the early 1970s, when Australians were falling madly in love with Italian food and wanted more. In 1979, Armando, the eldest brother, opened Pulcinella restaurant with patriarch Mario in Kings Cross. Brothers Tony and Carlo would also become successful chefs and now operate Brisbane's one-hatted Tartufo and Fellini Ristorante on the Gold Coast respectively.

Gnocchi with thyme and lamb ragu.
Gnocchi with thyme and lamb ragu.  Photo: James Brickwood

The proudly Italian Pulcinella was a hit with food-lovers and urban sophisticates, attracted to its seasonal dishes and ramshackle atmosphere. Rod Stewart celebrated his 40th there.

In 1987, Armando Percuoco opened Buon Ricordo at the refitted site of an old Greek restaurant in Paddo and by all reports it was everything Pulcinella wasn't. One big fancy dining room instead of a grapevine-covered courtyard, and – in what was a rather progressive feature for the time – an open kitchen where customers could view Percuoco plating figs wrapped in prosciutto and baked with gorgonzola. (They're still on the menu, unapologetically priced at $32.50.)

Buon Ricordo exists in a private universe with little care for food trends and contemporary design. Terracotta pavers steady a dining room decorated with Italian collector plates and still-life paintings. I'm pretty sure my grandmother owned a lounge set featuring the same floral upholstery that covers the chairs.

Truffled-egg fettucine.
Truffled-egg fettucine. Photo: James Brickwood

When Percuoco is on duty, you'll most likely find him on the floor, sharing stories and shaking hands with the many regulars – a mix of eastern-suburbs elite and old blokes fond of hyper-hospitality and hot pasta. Chef David Wright now heads the kitchen and does a damn fine job of it.

In its opening year, Herald critic Leo Schofield reported a meal at Buon Ricordo cost $31.50 before drinks. In 2018, that won't buy you a plate of crudo alla negroni ($33.50), where gin-marinated kingfish is sweetened with candied orange and Campari crystals, but it will afford you – without change – a bowl of soothing potato gnocchi with lamb ragout and fresh thyme.

It's real deal Chianti-by-the-fireplace stuff and the cellar is ready to accommodate with a flab-free selection of (mostly) Australian and Italian bottles. Super Tuscans are represented if you want to flex the plastic. Otherwise put yourself in the hands of young sommelier Daniel Marcella to match dishes via Coravin half-pour.

Clarence River school prawns tossed in flour, salt and white pepper.
Clarence River school prawns tossed in flour, salt and white pepper. Photo: James Brickwood

But, enough with the formalities. Let's talk truffled-egg fettuccine. The signature $38 dish that's slippery with cream and butter, and topped with a gently fried egg that's been intimate with truffles in a confined space. It's chopped and tossed at the table by white-jacketed waiters with a small amount of theatre and a healthy grind of parmesan. Every second customer has ordered it since 1994 and I bloody love it. Rich and aromatic with that old-socks-and-sex tartufo funk. God knows how anyone could finish a plate alone. A half-serve is the right idea, sent off with Piedmont nebbiolo.

Clarence River gamberetti ($31.50), meanwhile, you could eat all day long. The recurring special sees chubby, shell-on school prawns tossed in flour, salt and white pepper and fried. They disappear like lightning with house-made chilli oil and a squeeze of lemon. Mains are a suitably grand affair and include a $51.50 zuppa di pesce teeming with all of the sea life (or at least scampi, octopus, bass groper, vongole, calamari and mussels), and fall-apart Milly Hill lamb shoulder ($49.50) braised in almond milk and sharpened with green olives, orange zest and saffron.

A long lunch or dinner at Buon Ricordo is what life's all about. Real hospitality; la vera cucina. I only wish a journalist's wage could afford me to be a regular. By all means reserve a table and strap in for an embarrassment of richness. Just keep your hands within the craft and don't upset the captain. Buon Ricordo isn't a bottle shop, Tom, it's a bona fide institution.

Armando Percuoco at Buon Ricordo in August 1987.
Armando Percuoco at Buon Ricordo in August 1987. Photo: Fairfax Media

Est. 1987

Famous diners: Cold Chisel frontman Jimmy Barnes, singer John Farnham, piano man Billy Joel, actor and theatre director Cate Blanchett, sometime-poet John Laws.

Signature dishes: Pork trotter and veal sausages ($34); fresh figs wrapped in prosciutto ($32.50); truffled-egg fettuccine ($38).