Simone Crivello grew up in restaurants — specifically, his father’s seaside trattoria in the town of Porticello, Sicily. Crivello began his culinary career at Trattoria Francu U’ Piscaturi washing dishes, gradually learning the ropes of the family business while mastering recipes passed down from his grandmother and father.

Crivello’s father is known as the man behind one of the most lauded restaurants in Sicily, with the restaurateur once travelling the world with his son to teach people from countries including Japan about the intricacies of Sicilian cuisine.

The thing about Sicilian cookery is that it’s largely defined by what’s found in its picturesque surrounds — aka the sea. And while some similarities can be drawn between Sicilian and Australian climes, Sicilian restaurants are nowhere near as
prevalent as Northern Italian, Roman or even Sardinian eateries here.

The absence presented a cherry that was ripe for the picking for Crivello and wife Bella Galloway, who turned a Paddington terrace in Sydney into Zafferano Trattoria Mediterranea.

The pair speak to Hospitality about paying homage to traditional Sicilian food and wine and how the family-run Zafferano is as at home in Paddington as it is as its parent restaurant in Porticello.

Simone Crivello’s father founded his restaurant in 1970, and it’s still going strong more than half a century later. “His family were all fishermen, and he opened the restaurant to give us the opportunity to learn how to manage our lives around food,” says Crivello, who started his culinary career in the kitchen at the age of nine.

“I was always around food during my childhood. My childhood was spent running to the wharf, jumping on a boat and choosing live fish to bring back to the restaurant. But I started expanding my knowledge beyond seafood in my 20s. I worked at other restaurants around the highlands in Sicily to learn how to cook game meats such as wild boar and rabbit. I later travelled to India, America, London and South Africa.”

2010 marked the year Crivello became a part-owner of his father’s business alongside his siblings. “After a couple of years, I understood my way of doing business was different from my family’s, so I told them I was going on a holiday for a couple of months so I could take the time to work out what I wanted to do moving forward.”

Australia was the destination of choice, and was a life-changing decision for Crivello, which his father predicted before he had even left Sicily. “My dad looked me in the eye and said, ‘You won’t come back’,” he says. “I arrived on my 40th birthday in 2013 and I really loved the place.”

Crivello spent the next three years studying business and hospitality management while working in restaurants — “anything to stay”, he says. He would meet his future wife Bella in 2016 with the pair discovering a corner shop on Paddington’s South Dowling Street two years later. “It’s how Zafferano was born — from a prospective idea and dream.”

Zafferano is named after the cape in Palermo and is the place where Crivello spent his summers. “My idea was to reproduce the authenticity of my dad’s restaurant,” he says. The chef and his wife always planned to open a trattoria, however a technicality resulted in a different concept — Zafferano Caffe Mediterraneo, which opened in April 2021.

“Our landlord didn’t realise the DA didn’t have a liquor licence attached to it and changing it can take months,” explains Galloway. “We had to open [last year] to get some traction, so we were doing breakfast the Sicilian way.”

While the pair waited for the liquor licence to come through, the café iteration of Zafferano was winning customers over with cannoli, sfincione (Sicilian pizza) and sfingi (donuts). When the licence was approved, the state went into lockdown just two weeks later.

“We only had a few nights of trade,” says Galloway. “But we got through lockdown by doing pasta with wine and started promoting ourselves as a trattoria to the community. We were burnt out because it was just the two of us — we had no staff.”

Crivello and Galloway decided to “just go for it” in October and officially launched the restaurant they intended to before the false start. For Crivello, the 25-seat Zafferano Trattoria Mediterranea “is the highest expression of Sicilian food in small doses”.

The chef has purposely created a concise menu to illustrate dishes that best exemplify the nucleus of Sicilian cuisine. “Our menu is super small and always seasonal [like it is in Sicily], so we try to honour that,” says Galloway, who works with suppliers and producers around Sydney to stock the kitchen alongside Crivello.

The restaurant doesn’t have a cool room, which means the pair are hyper aware of serving ingredients at their peak. “We are waste-free because we don’t have a cool room,” says Galloway. “We constantly go to our sustainable butcher and pick up the meat for the specials and we talk to the fishermen, which is similar to the way they do it over there.”

Zafferano is putting up dishes Sydneysiders may have never come across before, let alone considered the story behind what’s on the plate. “Sicily was dominated by Greece, France and Spain and it influenced the way we cook food,” says Crivello.

“There are only two areas in Italy where they use fish and Mediterranean flavours which is Liguria and Veneto on the Adriatic side. 60 per cent of Sicilian dishes are vegetarian and there is a lot of beans, cauliflower, potato, artichoke and greens.

“It’s quite light and fresh compared to the north. The basic dishes are seafood and then we have specials where I do Mediterranean dishes that are made in Sicily.”

The menu is structured according to a ‘quattro, quattro, quattro, quattro’ format, which sees dishes listed under antipasti, pasta, share plates and sides. There’s also a rotating specials board which recently ran spaghetti with artichokes and prawns as well as a lesser-known dish — swordfish impanato. “We don’t do fish like this in Australia,” says Galloway. “It’s put in breadcrumbs with herbs, garlic and olive oil and
baked in the oven.”

The seafood risotto is Zafferano’s signature dish and is an homage to Crivello’s father’s recipe. It’s been a big crowd-pleaser for the Paddington trattoria — so much so that patrons have travelled to Sicily to try the original for themselves. “Some of our diehard customers have been to Simone’s father’s restaurant and sent photos saying, ‘This is so crazy — the risotto is exactly the same’,” says Galloway.

Other highlights include prawn and pistachio linguine, a combination that’s unique to Sicily. “It isn’t really found anywhere except Sicily,” says Galloway. “They often blend nuts with seafood.”

Seafood misto is teamed with a light red sauce/broth and served in a traditional Sicilian bowl alongside crostini for dunking purposes. Fried eggplant parmigiana with pecorino is covered with a ‘Napoli’ sauce that’s been passed down from generation to generation. “I learned from my great aunt when I was around 11,” says Crivello, who makes the sauce every two days.

As for the wine list, it’s completely Sicilian, just like the menu. It’s been an exercise in education for Galloway, with many guests accustomed to Australian wines. “Our wine list rotates depending on the seasons and it’s been interesting because a lot of people don’t know the grape varieties,” she says. “Simone also has a background as a sommelier, so he really knows his wine regions. We wanted to do everything Sicilian.”

Nero d’Avola has been described as ‘the most important red wine grape in Sicily’, which means it’s on the list. The medium-bodied wine is perhaps most comparable to a Shiraz and is known for its notes of red fruit and savoury qualities. “It has cherry and chocolate notes, but it’s light enough to drink with a white-based pasta,” says Galloway. “The red berry and liquorice is incredible,” adds Crivello.

Etna Rosso is made from Nerello grapes (Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato)
grown in volcanic soils. “It’s one of the oldest grapes and it’s quite mineral,” says Crivello. “You can close your eyes and imagine where the grapes grow. When people try our wines, they say they are completely different to the Australian wines they’re used to drinking.”

Zafferano has undergone a significant transformation since it first opened its doors as a café to becoming the trattoria Crivello and Galloway imagined when they drove down South Dowling Street. Zafferano Trattoria Mediterranea is emblematic of what Sicilian cuisine is all about — seasonality, seafood and simplicity — and it’s a more than welcome addition to the Sydney dining scene.

“Customers will compliment me and say they feel like their grandmother has come down from heaven and made them a plate of pasta,” says Crivello. “As a Sicilian, it’s a big deal. It means what I’m doing is the right thing.”