Northside neighbourhood restaurants abound. As do Italian local restaurants in Sydney. But what happens when talented MasterChef challenger Alex Keene opens a restaurant with his mentor Ormeggio Executive Chef Alessandro Pavoni, and restauranteur Bill Drakopoulos?
Via Alta in Willoughby greets customers with a choice of three dining areas, from the street side front verandah and the main dining room to the small spread of tables in the more intimate garden alcove. On the menu by day and by night is an appetizing range of Northern Italian favourites from stuzzichini to start through salumi, antipasti, soup, pasta, mains and desserts. Our visited coincided with the lunchtime shift, removing the white cloths, to present a more casual daytime trattoria and the new lunchtime menu. And while the luncheon menu provides extensive choices and excellent value it retains all the care and craftsmanship of Via Alta evening dining.
Let's start at the beginning, with the bread. When the sourdough is brought to the table it's simply offered as "from our bakery" but we know that means the Ormeggio bakery and the crusty tasty goodness by Laura Ballester. At Via Alta it comes as two generous slices with homemade ricotta and extra virgin olive oil on the side.
It's an early lunch, and I haven't had breakfast (yes I was saving myself for one big meal in the middle of the day) so I started with a Bloody Mary towering with celery. It's good, as is the bread and accoutrements, although I try hard not to pick at the staff of life too much and save myself for what is ahead.
From the antipasti we make two choices, the first of which is Mondeghini. In Milan these traditional meatballs use up the leftover meats from the Sunday roast. Here, at Via Alta, the crumbed Milanese meatballs while retaining the original intention are more luscious with a ground combination of Italian sausage, Scotch fillet and mortadella. And they are supremely delicious. As are the Arancini, which are not listed on the menu, but I'm told are always available as a special. The little morsels are delectable and I couldn't help showing you the perfection inside.
Rice is a thing here at Via Alta, as it is at big brother Ormeggio, and in Northern Italy. But not just any rice. Or any dish. Among the Italian community, Alessandro Pavoni is known as the Maestro of Risotto. That's how I was first introduced to him. And to be honest, I rarely now order risotto at a restaurant because I just can't find it as good as his. Like drawing the perfect circle freehand, it is difficult to make a superior dish. At most eateries it's not delivered as such; it's just ordinary. But knowing Pavoni is the mentor, and part-owner in this restaurant, I give it a go. On the Via Alta menu, it comes disguised as gold. The aroma greets you even before the treasure chest is in front of your eyes. A blind-folded man would know. This treasure is Saffron risotto and it is offered in two sizes. Our entrée size portion endorsed with the most wholesome rich tender red wine braised beef cheek is more than enough for two girls. Yet it is so good that this girl would gladly eat it every day and never tire of it. The dish is more than supremely satisfying. It is cooked to perfection retaining just the technically correct amount of bite. Beyond all of the technique though something else comes through that makes the Saffron risotto, red wine braised beef cheek ($20) more than the sum of its part. Perhaps it's care, perhaps it's love. But beyond doubt it is heaven on earth.
The other signature of Via Alta is from the dinner menu, and luckily for us it was a special on the day of our visit. Baccala pie, spinach, potato ($36) is a substantial baking dish of creamy hearty mashed potato and dried salt cod strewn with spinach and lusciously covered with a buttery puff pastry veil. It reminds of the sea although the South Australian fish produces a softer more succumbing result than the northern hemisphere alternatives. It's a beautiful dish. And it's another dish for which I could return time and time again. It's just the kind of food I want to eat at a local though significantly better than what can be found in most neighbourhoods. I'm wondering if I should move north, and move to Willoughby, and let Alex Keene feed me everyday?
More than these two dishes, the Via Alta lunch menu proposes lots of other marvellous choices. Ribollita Toscana (just $12) is a meal in a bowl. The soup of Tuscan cabbage, borlotti beans, chard, carrots, kale, onion is a meal in itself yet can be extended with an addition of a poached egg (extra $3). I break some bread and mop the last of the broth, after the flavoursome vegetables have been scooped up.
In the Pasta section of the lunch menu, as well as the cherished risotto, Via Alta offers five more choices from Gnocchi Norma and another vegetarian offering of Testaroli al Pesto, to seafood Busiate Marinara with mussels clams prawns calamari and cherry tomatoes. A top example of Carbonara comes Via Alta style with the spaghetti made in house cut by the guitar and the superb cured meat guanciale enriched with egg yolk and truffle Pecorino. Again the trattoria is offering the best of what can be. There's also a lovely Pappardelle with lamb ragout, green peas and rosemary. If you love pasta, this could require multiple Via Alta visits.
Lunch has four mains (apart from the chosen signature as a special). Only in hindsight does my gluttonous stomach even have room to looks at the menu choices across charcoal prawns, king salmon, crumbed chicken breast, or grilled flank steak. They're keenly priced at (mostly) twenty four bucks each.
Lunch volunteers four dessert choices too. All are exquisitely made in-house. But the crown on the puddings commands the head of the dinner menu. It's made with one of the best two chocolates to be found. Barbajada ($14) is so much more than velvet mousse. It's deep and devilishly corrupting, made with Armedei chocolate, served with decadent caramel, hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream. To hell with the calories!
I first met Head Chef Alex Keene in the Ormeggio kitchen not long after MasterChef, or it may have even been during it. I don't exactly remember the timing. He impressed me then with his eager eyes and quiet aspiration. Since then Alex has worked and studied and progressed in the renowned Ormeggio at The Spit, progressing to Sous Chef there. Now here he is heading the Via Alta kitchen. It is marvellous to see his culinary progress over the years and to have recently eaten his food from the restaurant kitchen he now runs and co-owns. He's still quiet, and focused and humble. And he's doing a splendid job. Even if you don't live on the northside, Sydney put this inviting Via Alta location on your must-do list. It's really excellent Italian.