If you were Italian, and your mum rang and said she was cooking risotto at 6.30pm, you'd sure as hell get there by 7pm. It's the same at Besser, the new Italian backyard joint in Surry Hills from the A Tavola team. The 6.30pm risotto is made when it says it's made, takes half an hour, and is served at 7pm. When it's gone, it's gone.
It is just one of many things that make Besser, now occupying the old Billy Kwong space, stand out from your regulation Italian tratt. Owner/chef Eugenio Maiale and his partners have gone back to their Oz/Italian upbringing in the suburbs for inspiration, which explains the 10-metre long bar constructed from Besser blocks, those graphically-shaped concrete bricks that spread across Australian backyards in the '60s and '70s. It also explains the colourful mis-matched polyprop chairs and Laminex-inspired tables. Above all, it explains the food.
They say it's pretty much what Maiale and head chef, Sandro Di Marino grew up eating, from crumbed lamb fingers and meatballs, to pasta, veal Milanese and osso buco. There's even a dessert of "Mum's birthday cake", topped with sugar pearls. It's doubtful their childhoods embraced the likes of salmon carpaccio or scampi with gin granita, but they're there, too, as updates.
I love, love, love the meatballs ($4 each); a mix of veal, pork and chicken served with the kind of sweet, light, non-acidic salsa pomodoro that comes from preserving your own tomatoes at the height of summer; the sort of sugo you could feed a three-month old baby. It also comes on the side of skinny toasts of "yesterday's bread, garlic butter" ($4), perfect with a platter of finely shaved San Daniele prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella ($17).
Fried sardines ($4 each) are cute, too, coated in a house-made ciabatta crust and looking like two fish fingers, but with heads and tails.
Maiale was renowned for his gnocchi at A Tavola, and it is just as light and soft here, the pillows coated with a ladleful of turkey ragu ($25); all shreddy meat, raisins, pine nuts and sage. Just lovely.
And The 6.30 risotto? Lovely, too. Tonight it is a verdant, vegetal green from zucchini puree, dotted with tiny zucchini flowers and topped with two handsomely tanned scallops ($22). The rice retains an al dente chew, and is pleasingly soupy rather than dry. But why serve it in an enamelled tin plate, which sucks the heat out of it, big-time. Buy some decent risotto plates, for heaven's sake, or I'll bring my own Ginori.
There's osso buco, too, the slab of grass-fed beef shin ($29) served with a reduction of the braising juices and topped with gremolata and very fine shavings of celery, and a side dish of carrots, fennel and kale chips showered with ricotta salata ($14) that works well.
Wines are no-nonsense, straight from the tap, both Italian and Australian. A fresh, true-to-the-grape Italian sangiovese is great value at $26 for 500 ml.
The dessert special of warm, sugared, bite-sized bombolini doughnuts served with cream and coffee granita is fun, and easy to share. In fact, everything is easy here, and the lively, mixed crowd, no matter what their heritage, seems to respond in kind and find their own reasons to like it.
For me, it's the fundamental, straightforward modesty of the cooking, the good-humoured skill of sommelier Ennio Di Marco and the savvy Italian floor staff, and the respect paid to tradition while at the same time subverting it. La cucina Australiana. Brilliant.
Address Shop 3, 355 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Phone (02) 9331 1611 besseritalian.com.au
Open Daily from 5.30pm
Cost Around $100 for two, plus drinks
Best bit: Everyone's having fun – them and us.
Worst bit: Enamel plates let food get cold too quickly.
Go-to dish: The 6.30 risotto, $22.