Via Alta

Terry Durack
Welcoming spot: Via Alta is Italian for High Street.
Welcoming spot: Via Alta is Italian for High Street. Photo: Edwina Pickles

197 High St North Willoughby, NSW 2068

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Opening hours Mon 5:30–10pm, Tue-Fri 7am–3pm, 5:30–10pm, Sat-Sun 7–11am, 12 Noon–3pm, 5:30–10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Business lunch, BYO, Events, Family friendly, Groups, Late night, Licensed, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Outdoor seating, Pre-post-theatre, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Breakfast-brunch, Bar
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Alex Keene
Seats 80
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9958 1110
Free wine for Citibank cardholders here

You can hear the screaming the minute you walk in the door of this very likeable, new Willoughby trattoria. "Order me," screams the fritto misto of school prawns and calamari on the big wall of blackboard. "And me," shrieks the veal ossobucco with its traditional accompaniments of saffron risotto and gremolata. "Me, me, me," cries the baked baccala pie.

What was Jeff Turnbull's modern French-ish High Street Bistro is now Via Alta, (Italian for High Street).

It's the first bambino of Alessandro Pavoni, of the two-hatted Ormeggio at the Spit, and Bill Drakopoulos, of the Sydney Restaurant Group and the Aqua Restaurant Group, who recently joined forces to inject life into Italian dining on the north shore.

Spiedo Bresciano - spit roast of pork neck, chicken and pork ribs with soft polenta. $35.
Spiedo Bresciano - spit roast of pork neck, chicken and pork ribs with soft polenta. $35. Photo: Edwina Pickles

They've not changed much in the broad-windowed, dog-legged dining room, just Italianised what was there by adding a sweeping Cafe Sopra-like blackboard menu wall above the big, black banquettes, softly glowing wall lamps and dark wooden tables and chairs.

Pavoni has also Italianised the kitchen, installing Ormeggio sous chef Alex Keene and a winter-friendly menu of good, gutsy food with plenty of northern Italian references, such as stuzzichini (bar snacks), lardo (cured pork fat) and baccala (salted cod). Do have the mondeghili - crumbed and fried Milanese meatballs ($12) made with scotch fillet, mortadella and Italian pork sausage, piled into a tall metal cone lined with brown paper.

It's a given that meatballs are irresistible, but these are outrageously good. Keene also shows finesse in an elegant dish of velvety, lightly seared bonito, strewn in cubes with paper-thin furls of lardo, pink pickled turnips, and button-like splodges of jet-black squid-ink mayo ($19).

'Me, me, me,' cries the pie

And hallelujah, there's a little mechanical rotisserie on the bar sending out the sort of meaty, herby, buttery, aromas that make screaming superfluous.

That means Pavoni's famous ''spiedo'', or spit-roast ($35), a specialty of his northern Italian home town of Brescia, is on the menu, albeit only for dinner and in limited quantities.

Skewers of salted pork neck and rib, and chicken thigh and leg are wrapped in pancetta and basted with butter as they slowly, slowly roast for five hours. Topped with crisped sage and buttery juices that melt into a bed of coarse, earthy polenta, it's like a month of Sunday roasts on a single plate. The baked baccala pie ($35) is pretty hefty, and gets a little carb-dominated by its golden pastry top and mashed potato base, but the creamy salt cod filling is lovely.

Baked baccala (salt cod) pie.
Baked baccala (salt cod) pie. Photo: Edwina Pickles

In Milan, barbajada is a hot drink of chocolate and coffee, the inspiration for a cute little dessert of rich, dark Amedei Tuscan black chocolate and coffee blancmange, sticky caramel, vanilla gelato and crushed hazelnut toffee in a glass jar ($14). It's nicely judged, and turns out to be one of the best dishes of the night.

An accessible, all-Italian drinks list - right down to vino frizzante and digestivi - runs to one of my favourite Italian workhorse reds, the ripe, spicy 2011 "Dal Tralcetto" Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Cantina Zaccagnini ($78).

Via Alta strikes me as the perfect winter restaurant. It's exactly what you'd want in your 'burb - a friendly, welcoming spot that's open lunch and dinner, doesn't lock you into inflexible degustation menus, caters for weekend breakfasts, and really nails boisterous, big-flavoured Italian.

The team plans another casual eatery at the Spit later this year; keep an ear out for the screams.

Best bit: Great neighbourhood tratt.
Worst bit: It's a trek to the loo.
Go-to dish: Spiedo Bresciano, $35.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.