Exploring authenticity: Italian cuisine in Australia
Italian food is many things to many people, but the resonating theme is authenticity. By Madeline Woolway.
“Italian is a fickle thing. If you make pasta marinara, automatically a lot of people are going to say ‘well my grandma’s recipe was better’. There is a cultural and very deeply personal connection to that type of food,” said Martin Heierling, group culinary director of Urban Purveyor Group (UPG), which acquired popular Italian dining brand, Fratelli Fresh, earlier this year.
This is why, despite its apparent simplicity, Italian cuisine has remained at the epicenter of Australian dining despite increased competition from other international cuisines.
“Everyone grows up with a bit of Italian food around them at some point, so there is a connection and expectation based on what you’ve grown up with. People will have opinions. Many may love a particular rag, but maybe I won’t. It doesn’t mean it’s not good, it just means it’s not what I like based on my expectations,” Heierling told Hospitality.
“When it’s done authentically, Australian people really appreciate the simplicity and the quality of produce,” said Renata Roberts, owner of Pizzeria Violetta and Sichuan Bang Bang.
Authenticity is a complicated concept, with as many interpretations as there are variations of rag. Italian food, however, is one of the most exactingly controlled cuisines. There are associations dedicated to the protection of Italy’s gastronomic culture and traditions, whose raison d'tre is to extol historical authenticity, and their passion is infectious.
“My philosophy has always been really simple. If you can dedicate your product or your offering to being really authentic then it speaks for itself and you can build a business model from that. I’ve always been of the mind that authenticity takes precedence over everything,” Roberts said.
Freedom in restraint
While restrictions might seem limiting, they can help restaurateurs regulate diner expectations.
“Italian food is popular generally because people understand it and are comfortable with it,” said Rod Micallef, owner and operator of Zonzo Estate winery in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.
The existence of organisations dedicated to the protection of traditional Italian recipes also means that many consumers come to the table educated.
“Most Australians are very aware of traditional Italian food. They know pasta should be al dente and they know Napoli pizzas should be a bit charred on the base,” said Roberts. “It was certainly more challenging introducing Sichuan cuisine than it was introducing Italian.”
Heierling said that although Italian is tried and bastardised often, it’s “one of those simple cuisines that never goes out of style.”
“Fratelli Fresh has captured that honesty about Italian food; it’s not trying to be anything that it’s not. It’s very simple, straightforward, with seasonal ingredients that are well-cooked, well-seasoned and presented simply,” he said.
“This is what resonates with the customer base.”
Pizza con radicchio from Zonzo Estate
“Some of our dishes do require explaining. We have a dish called Bagna Cauda, which is from the north of Italy, near Piedmont. It’s a warm dip that you have with vegetables. It’s made from anchovies, butter and capers; it’s very salty and thick. Even though it’s a staple in northern Italy, it wasn’t really known by our customers,” said Roberts.
While it does take a bit of time and knowledgeable staff, taking risks with lesser known dishes is worth it in the long run.
“There’s one pizza we’re doing at the moment, called pizze con rape [rah-peh], with turnip leaves. People aren’t sure about it, even though we put a translation on the menu,” said Micallef. “But it’s boring just serving dishes that everyone knows; it’s nice if they can enjoy something new – that’s what keeps them coming back – so I try to train the staff to explain it well and sell it.”
Pulling off the simplicity of Italian cuisine requires rigour and finesse. Realising the vision of preparing classic Italian food has meant paying close attention to ingredients and processes, said Roberts.
Importing products like San Marzano tomatoes and 00 flour from Italy is a necessary cost, she added, if the goal is authentic Neapolitan pizza that adheres to the guidelines of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
While she feels that the high cost of importing core ingredients from Italy is justifiable, it is possible to source high quality produce closer to home without compromising on authenticity.
“Our peppers are from Montville, the wild boar in our rag is from Toowoomba, and a lot of the cold meats and charcuterie are from a small company just over the border near Byron Bay called Salumi. And all the herbs are from my mum’s garden, just down the road,” said Roberts.
Micallef takes a similar approach, mixing local products with imported ones. “One of the pleasures we get is making traditional Italian meals with both local and imported produce. We grow some vegetables and herbs on-site, and we source a lot of produce from local farmers,” he said. “But then we use imported cheeses to give it that authentic touch.”
“We just introduced another pizza concept at the Walsh Bay restaurant and right away we jumped [to having] 35–40 percent of sales coming from pizza. Being able to see artistry in action is a key component of the Fratelli brand,” said Heierling.
Integrity is important as Fratelli introduces a new pizza concept, which bends the bounds of tradition, without breaking authenticity.
“We’ll be giving consumers the ability to choose what goes on their pizza and build their own, without taking away that integrity,” said Heierling. “You’ll see a pizza maker in front of you who knows how to stretch the dough; it’s not machine made, it’s still handmade and the artistry of that means the integrity is there. It’s exciting. It gives credibility to the process of doing honest and real food. But by allowing the customer to participate, you reduce the risk of them not being satisfied.”
Mitch Orr, co-owner and head chef at acme in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay, takes a different approach to plating up pasta.
“We wanted to serve pasta more in the style of Chinatown, rather than an Italian restaurant,” he said.
While acme doesn’t tout itself as an Italian restaurant – Orr said he has no business defining Italian food – it’s known for its experimental pasta dishes.
“Pasta is what I’ve built a reputation for,” Orr told Hospitality. “We don’t cook Italian food. We do, however, use a lot of classic Italian flavours as a jumping off point for the dishes we create.
“Pasta is basically noodles, so why can’t it go with Asian leaning flavours? If you break down a lot of what we do, it’s tried and true Italian, just looked at through a different lens.
“Our food takes influences from everywhere: the seasons, KFC, Chinatown, cucina povera and the most progressive restaurants.”
Although the flavours might break expectations, Orr still takes some cues from tradition.
“All the pastas are made traditionally, though we often mess with the flavours,” Orr said. “The shape of the pasta is important, 100 percent. We choose the shape or style of pasta to match with the sauce and garnish that we serve with it.
“The fact that pasta and noodles are basically sisters does help when using ingredients that are less traditional. Black garlic and burnt chilli linguine is really just a spin on aglio olio e pepperoncini – a super common pasta dish where the sauce is oil, garlic and chilli.”
Wisdom gleaned from touring Sydney’s dining circuit, as well as completing a stage at the famously rule-breaking Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy – recently crowned the World’s Best Restaurant – informs the acme menu, not sticking to tradition.
“Dan Puskas [of Sixpenny] gave me some advice years ago: think about three to four elements of flavour and how they work together. Don’t cloud them or over complicate it. That’s something I always stick to. We often look to traditional dishes, not just Italian, as points of inspiration. Whether it is a flavour profile or a way to reinvent a dish in the acme style. That’s where my training, experiences and preferences really come into play,” said Orr.
Acme is clearly not traditional Italian, but it is authentic in its commitment to the personal expression of a historically determined national cuisine.
Macaroni and pigs head from acme.