It's my first day trip out of town, and I feel as free as a bird. The car is loving its first long drive in months, and my eyes rest on tall eucalypts and glimpses of blue water as if they have forgotten what country is.
It's cold and bright, and I want to hunker down somewhere cosy and eat wood-fired bread and pasta and steak, and drink beer and red wine, then have a very long walk along the beach.
Just as well I have come to Ettalong Beach, then. Because Italian-born chef Nicola Coccia has also come to Ettalong Beach, after cooking at the likes of Biota, Ormeggio, Quay, Otto and, most recently, the chef-hatted Bistro Officina in Bowral, which he ran with his French wife, Alexandra.
In response to the times we live in, Coccia (pronounced koch-ya) is currently running with a set menu over two dinners and Sunday lunch, as well as flipping the front wine bar into a fried chicken shop for eat-in and takeaway. He's too good a chef to be just flipping birds in oil, however.
Osteria Il Coccia has fire in its belly, built around a big wood-fired grill which imbues everything with the fragrant smoke of ironbark and olive wood.
It's a pleasure to settle into the warm, dark dining room, walled with rough timber and sandstone, hung with deer antlers, and floored with rough tiles and cowhide – something more akin to a snug little Italian mountain "rifugio" or hunting lodge than a beachside diner.
The dense, wood-fired sourdough bread is another pleasure, made crazy-good with the double-smoked, cultured butter.
There has been talk of restaurants doing away with tableside descriptions of dishes as they are brought to the table. Not so here, although they are kept to a minimum by Alexandra and sommelier Luca.
The five-course menu starts with little snacks of pizze fritte with a lush taramasalata, and rises to a small bowl of clams, opened over the fire and served in a pool of buttery juices. Next up is a Moreton Bay bug that becomes, for me, symbolic of all we have been missing.
This is what a good chef can do – cook shellfish cleanly and directly over fire, and turn it into something greater than it is.
The lightly cooked bug meat is plump and yielding under its skin of smoked guanciale, resting on a tangle of fermented sugarloaf cabbage awash with sweet, stocky, smoky juices. It's a thing of beauty, sweet and luxurious. With it, Luca pours a clean, fruit-fresh 2018 Funaro chardonnay from Sicily ($14/$65), typical of the island's new focus on distinctive, small-volume wines.
The pasta course is a creamy, twirled ball of yarn; hand-made spaghetti cacio e pepe that could do with more pepe. It hides under autumnal leaves of earthy, perfumed, Canberran truffle – shaved in the kitchen rather than at the table, as per new protocol.
Grass-fed O'Connor sirloin is grilled, sliced and served on smoked potato cream with soft porcini mushrooms (or go for the more sensational sizzle of black angus dry-aged rib eye on the bone for an extra $60 for two). There's a big, beefy "animal jus" as well, but the meat is rich enough in itself.
A liquid-nitrogen'd dessert of chocolate and native berry sorbet with nicely chewy clouds of meringue is mercifully light.
This is Sunday lunch, so there's time for a long walk along the shore, fringed with the same karkalla and warrigal greens that have woven in and out of the meal.
It feels good to be a part of regional NSW's return to life after its particularly tough year. Especially if this is how it's going to play out – with small, unique restaurants immersed in their own regions, run by people with big hearts, skilled hands and warm hospitality.
There's no fairytale ending to a pandemic, but this gives me hope.
Osteria Il Coccia
Address: Shop 40, 189 Ocean View Road, Ettalong Beach, 02 4327 8952, osteriailcoccia.com.au
Open: Lunch Sun from noon, dinner Fri and Sat from 5pm; Hot Chook Shop Wed-Sat from 5pm, Sun from noon
Dining window: Two hours
Takeaway: Lasagne, tiramisu, and fried chicken.
Protocols: Social distancing, contactless payment
Vegetarian: A dedicated, vegetarian five-course set menu
Drinks: Moretti beer on tap, classic cocktails, and predominantly organic, unfiltered Italian and French wines (plus Rockford Basket Press 2015 Shiraz, $250)
Cost: $85 a head for a generous five-course set menu (wine-matching, $52 a head)
Where's the score? While the industry works to get back on its feet, the practice of scoring reviews has been paused.