Simon Wilkinson takes a trip to L'Italy

Simon Wilkinson, SA Weekend
July 12, 2019
SCORE 15/20

Italian vino speak can sound so damn sexy. Names like brunello di Montalcino, or nero d’Avola, even sangiovese, have so much more romance about them than your garden variety shiraz or grenache.

The caveat, of course, is that they need to be pronounced with the correct emphasis and accent, not mangled by someone who thinks Barolo is the latest signing for Adelaide United.

L’Italy, newly opened in O’Connell St, is a good place to start. Rows of imported bottles from its impressive collection line the walls, as well as filling a cellar at the back, so while you might start with a sneaky barrel-aged negroni, a conversation about wine is unlikely to be too far away.

And when co-owner Riccardo Puccio helps unravel some of the mysteries of variety and region, you will want him to run through a few options, such is the beauty of the language, before settling on, say, a light-but-savoury schiava from the Dolomites.

L'Italy owner Ricardo Puccio
L'Italy owner Ricardo Puccio

The appeal of L’Italy, however, runs much deeper than its wine. While closely related to near-neighbours Ruby Red Flamingo and Tony Tomatoes, its approach shows more serious intent than the sunny, southern crowd-pleasers of that pair. Think of it as the sophisticated cousin from Milan, Fiorentina or perhaps New York.

That’s not to say L’Italy is uptight. Quite the contrary. On this Friday night the joint certainly has a spring in its step. A uniformly gorgeous bunch of youngsters have gravitated to the front windows, while a mixed bag of couples and old mates settle in opposite the bar. Sinatra and Buble are going croon-for-croon on the playlist and the atmosphere is one you’d like to bottle and take home.

The kitchen looks to be in good hands as well after the appointment of head chef Joe Carey, whose CV includes time at much-lauded Brae, in country Victoria. Here he is making his own smallgoods, some of it hanging in the cellar, as well as the bread and pasta. Produce, from a pint-sized vealer T-bone to the snappiest young endive leaves, is elite. And his panna cotta … it’s not something you will quickly forget.

L'Italy - impressive
L'Italy - impressive

First things first. A selection of drink-friendly snacks kicks off with salumi that for now includes some items, such as the prosciutto, that are made elsewhere while the house version has time to age. “Coppa di testa” are slices of brined and steamed Berkshire pig head, rosy pink and rimmed with fat. They are draped over leaves of grilled radicchio, whose char and bitterness is Nick Cave to the meat’s Kylie Minogue.

Young artichoke hearts have been fried until the outer leaves are shrivelled and toasty. They are accompanied by a romesco-style pepper sauce but really just need a wedge of lemon.

The menu includes a single pizetta and two pastas (pappardelle with pork and kale ragu, gnocchi with celeriac cream) but mostly leaves the carb-loading dishes to other places.

Instead, there are two superb pieces of king george whiting, fried and napped with a classic burnt butter and caper sauce that balance its nuttiness with a nip of acid to get the most out of the delicate fish that this state so adores. To the side are the “chips” – crisp discs of purple congo potato that look dramatic and would do a roaring trade if sold in a packet.

The veal T-bone, from the Dairyman in the Barossa Valley, is about the size of my hand, the fillet from each side neatly trimmed away and cut into thick slices that reveal a perfect medium rare. The brutal searing of the outer crust makes the tenderness of this flesh even more surprising. Pine mushrooms and a well-crafted reduction also hit the mark without worrying about the pumpkin puree.

Don’t skimp on the sides. Perky green beans are transformed from virtuous veg to something wicked by anointing with a spicy sauce of melted nduja (sausage). Young cos and endive leaves are already dressed in a lemon vinaigrette but can also be wiped through an anchovy cream. It makes the usual mixed leaf salad look silly.

And a trembling jersey cream and sheep milk panna cotta, so fragile it barely stays upright on the plate, shows using extra gelatine for structural integrity is a mug’s game. Brittle sheets of dried sheep milk skin add extra texture, as well as a subtle, caramel edge. It’s the panna cotta of the gods, a dairy dream, and the best example around town. Especially when paired with a “vini dolci” that Riccardo will recommend. Brachetto from Piemonte? Grazie.

OWNERS Riccardo Puccio, Enzo Verdino, Walter and Vittorio Ventura, and Lauro Siliquini

CHEF Joe Carey

DRINKS Explore Italian wine from the northern Alpine regions to the tip of the toe. A few Aussie inclusions speak the same language.