So many new Italians in town. Leo, Calabria, Glorietta, Amalfi Way, Bar Totti, Busta, Fabbrica, Cucina Porto, Seta, you name it. But here's something for the books – a new restaurant that's an old Italian instead.
Everything at Bastardo feels familiar, as if it has somehow synthesised every Italian joint I've been in since my first calamari fritti. It has the dark woods, the green terrazzo, the ancient (well, vintage) La Parmigiana pasta machine, the wall of happy noise emanating from long tables.
It has bags of flour against the wall, an old football-game table table, and bottles of vermouth and amaro on the shelves.
But this is what they do. Chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz and wine guy and front-of-house Joe Valore have opened many a restaurant since their first baby Bodega in 2006.
Together with the talents of their extended families, they have stamped each one with a strong identity from day one. Bodega, Porteno, Bodega 1904, Continental Delicatessen, and with additional partners, Mary's, Stanbuli or LP's Quality Meats – each has its own distinct character.
Bastardo could be an old tratt in La Boca, Buenos Aires, where so many Italians of Genoan heritage resettled, yet it packages up dining that's right for now. This is also what they do.
Fresh pasta – which seems Milgate's domain – dominates the menu, running from corn agnolotti with brown butter, capers and sage, to toasted flour tagliatelle with duck and silverbeet.
Freshly extruded spaghetti has a good resilience, laced with fleshy, bouncy little clams and pinches of spicy 'nduja from LP's Quality meats ($28), the paprika-strong oily juices coating everything with warmth.
Slabs of warm, spongy focaccia ($3pp) are a preview of the team's Humble Bakery next door, which opens this week. The finely sliced mortadella ($12) is nothing special, but little mezzaluna of pasta fritta with a sludge of mozzarella ($8) inside are cute.
The generation of diners that has grown up with team Porteno will recognise their preferred ingredients, on constant rotation here. Bullhorn (romano) peppers, for instance, are stuffed with a pappy mix of Olasagasti anchovies, crumbs, sage and lemon ($16), slow-roasted and served in their own sweet, fruity juices. There's a zippy little salad of thickly chopped fennel, orange, olives, onion and mint ($12), too.
Is there a stand-out dish? Is there ever. The porchetta ($38), another Porteno favourite, would be very difficult to improve upon.
Two thick rounds of rolled Borrowdale pork belly come framed in crisp crackling that protects the sweet, fennel-scented, girl-pig (no hormonal pork taint) meat. Disciples of the keep-it-simple school, the chefs send it out with a puddle of white beans, some big pinches of pork sausage and wilted kale. Done like a dinner.
Wine is an important part of the business, as always, and sommelier Lara Grey takes an active approach to guiding diners through various vermouths, amari and Italian varietals.
For the pork, she's keen on a 2019 Ravensworth sangiovese ($93) made by Murrumbateman winemaker Bryan Martin (with the help of industry mates when his grapes suffered in the bushfires); a cherry-bright wine of juiciness and spice.
For pud, there's olive oil and fennel cake and zabaglione, but go for the gelato ($14) made in Humble Bakery's gelateria next door by Bodega chef Eunman Hoon (Holt Street will soon be all but colonised by Bodega x Wyno, Porteno, Humble Bakery and Bastardo, with common loos out the back).
Served with a paddle and not a scoop – always a good sign when in Italy – the dense, dark, rich chocolate gelato, nutty nougat gelato, and dairy-free orange sorbetto taste super-fresh.
Something old, something new, something Sicilian, Italian, Argentinean, and Surry Hills. It all adds up to make Bastardo a love child with a pretty cute name; one that feels as exciting to walk into today, as the very first Bodega was, 14 years ago. This, too, is what they do.
Address 50 Holt Street, Surry Hills, 02 9435 0800, reservations via opentable.com.au
Open Dinner Tue-Sat 5pm-late
Drinks Mostly Italian wine list with a scattering of local Italian varietals and a cellar list for something special.
Vegetarian Antipasti, pasta, sides – more than enough to make meal.
Cost About $170 for two, plus drinks
Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back onto its feet.