In an era when social differences sometimes seem sharper than ever, there's one thing that unites Sydneysiders – Italian food. From red-sauce restaurants that happen to be vegan to boundary-pushing kitchens delivering dishes with wow factor, these are some of our favourite old and new Italians of now.
Everything has character here – the food, the booze, the hustle, and the staff. The old Berta site is now a come-hither dining room that's part western saloon, part Italian wine bar, and part Restaurant Hubert, but without the cabaret stage or Frenchiness. Dishes are small, rich and punchy, stamped with Japanese umami. So affettati misti is a get-the-party-started selection of paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, kohlrabi, mortadella and craggy chunks of piave vecchio cheese. Pasta is done with care and depth; notably a Roman bucatini all'Amatriciana, whose pneumatic inner tubes are coated, not drowned, in a tomatoey sauce strewn with guanciale (pork jowl).
Must-eat dish: The ripper trippa alla Romana of lush, sweetly spiced braised tripe with a savoury textural passenger of additional crisply fried tripe.
17 Alberta Street, Sydney, albertoslounge.com
Pizza marinara at Bella Brutta, scattered with Ortiz anchovies. Photo: James Brickwood
With its emphasis on hand-made and seasonal, Bella Brutta (Italian for beautiful ugly) exists in a sort of parallel universe to the multinational pizza chains. The constantly changing antipasti and small plates might include sardine escabeche that is light, warm and oily, or a meltingly soft, cloud-like ricotta gnudi with lightly cooked zucchini and zucchini flowers that's a pretty picture of the summer to come. But mainly it's about the pizza, with a blistered crust and seriously good toppings.
Must-eat dish: Pizza marinara, with its sweetly acidic tomato salsa and busty, bubbled crust.
135 King Street, Newtown, 02 9922 5941, bellabrutta.com.au
Prosciutto, grissini at Don Peppino's. Photo: James Alcock
Despite taking a short lease on what was Paddington's Grand Pacific Blue Room, Don Peppino's doesn't look like a pop-up, nor does it feel like one. With its table service, considered drinks list and neo-nonna cooking, it feels like it's here to stay. The menu is hand-written daily because it changes daily. Their main game is pasta. If there's a Pugliese-inspired dish of chickpea pasta shells, chickpeas and crisp-fried pasta called ceci e tria, do it. If there isn't, no problem; Thursdays are gnocchi nights and could feature comfort-food clouds of semolina gnocchi – like souffle pikelets – in a Tuscan peposo beef ragu that leaves the warm bite of pepper in your throat.
Must-eat dish: Prosciutto, grissini (if it's on the menu).
1 Oxford Street, Paddington, 02 9326 9302, donpeppinos.com.au
Baked-to-order wood-fired bread at Totti's. Photo: James Brickwood
Justin Hemmes has done much to shake up Sydney's beachside pub scene at Coogee, Collaroy and Newport. Now it's Bondi's turn, as Merivale moves into the Royal in Bondi, waves a big wand, inserts top-shelf chefs, and turns old-school into new-school. The top half of the menu is best, like the top half of an icy-cold beer. You could build a meal around a baked-to-order basketball of bread by adding smooth creamy burrata, prosciutto San Daniele or spicy 'nduja. It's worth sharing a pasta or two – especially a beautifully al dente rigatoni sauced with a gravel of pork or a fruity, tomatoey stew of Sardinian fregola.
Must-eat dish: Wood-fired flat bread (add your own antipasto).
283 Bondi Road, Bondi, 02 9114 7371, merivale.com/venues/tottis
Vegan tiramisu at Peppe's. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Peppe's is the genuine, good-value trattoria that just happens to be vegan. Chef Joel Bennetts tends to use masses of herbs, dried mushrooms and vegetables to build layers of flavour. Two green olive arancini see a risotto base of onions, garlic, thyme, white wine, nutritional yeast, herbs and chilli oil, rolled and fried until crisp. A daily special of fettuccine zucchini is a big serve of egg-free pasta sauced with zucchini puree, chilli, parsley and white wine. Classic puds such as tiramisu and panna cotta are cleverly conjured from plants. Vegans must feel liberated by the fact that good chefs are now turning their skills to recreate the sort of food the rest of us have been stuffing in our faces for years on end.
Must-eat dish: Gnocchi al pomodoro, with fat little cushions of potato gnocchi coated in tomato sugo and popping with salty prickles of deep-fried capers.
261 Bondi Road, Bondi, peppelovesgnocchi.com.au
Bonito and fermented cucumber with a ring of feta at LuMi. Photo: Supplied
Since opening in 2014, this luminous glass box of a restaurant on a Pyrmont pier has evolved from One To Watch into One Not To Miss. Federico Zanellato's fusing of Italian and Japanese flavours is as precise and creative as those whose degustations are twice the price. The "wow" moments come thick and fast – like the "Italian gunkan" battleship sushi of Italian rice, milky stracciatella and fat, sweet lobes of sea urchin. Wow. A crisp, delicate seaweed tart loaded with Moreton Bay bug, finger lime and karkalla. Double wow. Crisp meringue with blackcurrant and salted geranium ice-cream sustains the excitement right to the end.
Must-eat dish: Pork and fermented shiitake pie served with chicken reduction.
56 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont, 02 9571 1999, lumidining.com
Sydney's most Sydney restaurant. Photo: Supplied
Icebergs Dining Room and Bar
Sydney's most Sydney restaurant draws a razzle-dazzle, A-list crowd with its intoxicating blend of vistas, meticulous service and refined cooking, showcasing ever more meticulously sourced ingredients. This is the place to go big. Six sea-sweet WA scampi tails mix it with a bevy of poached baby radishes. Hand-rolled spinach twirls of pici are laced with nuggets of tender lamb, juniper and eggplant. Uncompromisingly fresh crisp-skinned trumpeter is grounded by cime di rapa and kipfler potatoes cooked in anchovy butter. Finish on a pink atomic cloud of meringue, whipped mascarpone, beetroot and grapefruit sorbet. The mercurial Maurice Terzini has kept Icebergs fresh for 16 years – and counting.
Must-eat dish: The magnificent digestivi trolley after – or instead of – dessert.
1 Notts Avenue, Bondi Beach, 02 9365 9000, idrb.com
Snacks at Otto. Photo: James Brickwood
Otto is all about the magic of the long, water-fringed Finger Wharf, the sunshine (and sunset), the well-heeled people and the rich and glossy food. It's very Italian, from the soft white-peppery mortadella with pickles and peppers, to the golden zucchini flowers filled with ricotta and pecorino. But it's also very Australian, with its Sydney rock oysters, Mooloolaba swordfish and wood-grilled eastern rock lobster. Chef Richard Ptacnik knows just how to spruce up a twirl of bucatini in fresh, light, tomatoey juices with a tumble of sweet Moreton Bay bug meat or a mighty 300-gram black Angus scotch fillet with giant onion rings and bone marrow butter.
Must-eat dish: Spaghetti, eastern rock lobster, cherry tomato, chilli, garlic, brandy.
Area 8, 6 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo, 02 9368 7488, ottoristorante.com.au
Ormeggio at the Spit
Ormeggio at the Spit is in one of the most unlikely locations, hidden out the back of a boat shop, jutting off a marina. But therein lies its charm. Chefs Alessandro Pavoni and Victor Moya combine their strengths to create a series of menus that are at times reserved, but never shy. A tender, raw mussel arrives on a bed of seaweed, topped with the tiniest dice of sweet pickled vegetables. The rich, salty wallop of a piece of char-grilled wagyu licked with fermented garlic is typical of the cooking here: assured, balanced, and smart. Settle in for lunch, and stay for sunset.
Must-eat dish: Truffle-garnished pasta button filled with liquid parmigiano reggiano.
D'Albora Marinas, Spit Road, Mosman, 02 9969 4088, ormeggio.com.au
Oh, Frat Paz, has it really been 18 years already? You've had a fine-tune – new leather booths and more teeny tables to make the no-bookings policy less of a kerbside crush – but keeping up with the Russos, thankfully, you're not. The concise chalkboard menu is as familiar and dependable as the welcoming chime of "buonasera" from the sassy, swift-of-foot staff. It offers just enough choice to make you feel like you may not order the lasagnetta bolognese or scampi spaghetti – again. But who are you kidding? The vongole chitarra, though – bright with egg yolk and coated in fermented chilli – is a no-regrets kind of dish.
Must-eat dish: The custard bombolini sell out by 9am at weekends. Rise earlier.
12-16 Challis Avenue, Potts Point, 02 9357 1744, fratelliparadiso.com
Everyone comes for their near-perfect pizza, but it's easy to forget that this family-friendly Rosebery institution has entire sections of their menu dedicated to food of the non-pizza variety. Ease yourself into the carb-fest with a plate of tender calamari, fried crisp, lifted with a squeeze of lemon. If you can resist the Italian staples of caprese and carpaccio, thin slices of sour marinated swordfish makes for a top-notch pesce marinato. Of course, those aren't the slices everyone visits Da Mario for. The pizza here is charred and puffed, chewy and topped with mozzarella and cured meats. The always-changing menu gives you many reasons to return.
Must-eat dish: Don't fill up on pizza when there's a spectacular tiramisu on the dessert menu.
36 Morley Avenue, Rosebery, 02 9669 2242, damario.com.au
For an Italian restaurant run by non-Italians, Rosetta does a damn fine job of making you feel you're holidaying on the Amalfi Coast instead of dining in this elegant, split-level space. It's the seafood that does it. Australia's finest and freshest is sent out in a celebratory antipasto of finely sliced calamari; fresh-picked crab; diced tuna; pipis in the shell; king prawn and scampi, and fresh pasta gets the luxury treatment with grilled marron or spanner crab. It's the vast Italian wine list and the meat, too, including a no-frills, all-thrills grill of long-boned, meaty Cowra lamb cutlets.
Must-eat dish: Tonnarelli cacio e pepe.
118 Harrington Street, Sydney, 02 8099 7089, rosettarestaurant.com.au