“A Closer Look” is a new series in which Broadsheet editor and noted food writer Max Veenhuyzen examines the city’s restaurants with a more critical eye.

Have you heard the one about the Italian restaurant serving one of Sydney’s best renditions of butter chicken?

The thing is, the dish in question isn’t actually butter chicken. Or at least as far as menu billing goes, anyway. What you’re looking for is the “trippa alla Romana”. Traditionally, this Roman classic features animal B-sides simmered in a tart tomato base, but at Surry Hills’ rollicking Alberto’s Lounge, the deft deployment of garam masala, fenugreek and cinnamon – plus the clever contrast of crisp-fried honeycomb tripe against gelatinous nubbins of tendon – plucks the dish out of the Mediterranean and teleports it some 6000 kilometres south-east, to India. It’s wild. It’s seriously unconventional. It’s the perfect spirit dish for one of last year’s best restaurant openings.

The seemingly infallible Swillhouse Group has a knack for pulling off brilliant yet gently subversive covers of well-known restaurant concepts (see French dining pastiche Hubert, and its rock’n’roll pizza den, Frankie’s). For their latest trick, Toby Hilton and brothers Anton and Stefan Forte present their vision of a – to quote Alberto’s website – “neighbourhood Italian restaurant and wine bar”. Taking over the old Berta site, Alberto’s replaces the former’s sleek, stripped-back look with acres of timber and nicely worn Italianate props including framed posters and a low-rise tower of blocks spruiking Rosso Antico. The space remains as squeezy as ever, although the once-open kitchen now hides behind a formidable wall of booze.

The handiwork of chef Dan Pepperell, though, is loud and clear on the plate. In the same way he flipped the script on French food at Hubert, Pepperell has been busy reimagining cucina Italiano for Australian diners in 2019 and presenting his findings in a tight edit of pastas, mains, and hot and cold antipasti. Some of his change-ups – such as slipping thick ribbons of fermented kohlrabi into the affettati misti mixed plate of cold cuts – are subtle yet effective. Other tweaks – the addition of dashi jelly to an oddly warm raw tuna crudo – are a little more extreme and not quite as convincing.

One area where the strike-rate is high, though, is the pasta. The house-made offerings are uniformly great, occasionally sublime and steadily changing. (Those who recall the legendary ragu seasoned with soy and fish sauce from Pepperell’s time at 10 William St will be both thrilled and dismayed to hear it’s already come and gone since opening.) Like the aforementioned butter-chicken-not-butter-chicken, the Eternal City (Rome) featured prominently in some of Pepperell’s first flour-and-water creations. Chubby and chewy tubes of bucatini all’Amatriciana buzzed with chilli and porky savour. Plus-sized gnocchi (flour, ricotta, eggs, parmesan) presented like fat scallops and dressed with cacio e pepe, Rome’s famous one-two of pepper and pecorino cheese. While these pastas make excellent meals for one, they’re best shared with friends. Same goes for the bistecca and sadly retired fried pork neck cotoletta.

Another reason for assembling a posse when tackling Alberto’s is buying power when it comes to the cellar, at least if Italian and lo-fi wines are your idea of a good time. (By-the-glass options are also available by the 250-millilitre quartino; excellent news for smaller dining groups).

I’m less sure the cocktails, although well made, live up to their considerable $22 price tag. Has the second coming of high-end cocktail bars, such as New York import Employees Only in the CBD, made it okay (again) to start charging north of $20 for Campari, gin, vermouth, ice and a slice of orange peel? Having said that, Sydney isn’t an easy place to run a small business, and polished staff like the gang that patrols this tight room is becoming harder to find (and retain) in such a saturated dining market. Maybe squeezing out a couple more dollars on Negronis and Martinis is one way for management help keep them – and, by extension, diners – in this pocket of the city?

Considering Pepperell’s fondness for unauthorised remixes, the sweets play with a comparatively straight bat. Fried cannoli shells are filled with buttermilk and pistachio praline, and hazelnut, mango and apple feature among the flavours of the (silky, creamy) gelato. It’s made daily using a Carpigiani machine that, Pepperell tells me, is the Rolls Royce of gelato makers and used by many of the city’s better gelaterias. It’s a not insignificant investment (ditto the $12 the gelato) but the pay-off is sound. The pleasure of the pure flavour of hazelnut is worth a hundred cook-by-number desserts constructed out of foams, smears, pixie dust and tweezers.

In its own way, the gelato is representative of another key to the Alberto’s experience: invisible details. For all the work and fine-tuning that goes into dinner here, management doesn’t want guests to see the stitching. All we have to do is enjoy ourselves, which is very, very easily done. The Swillhouse Group has built it and Sydney, judging by the amount of people willing to queue for a seat here, even mid-week, is coming in numbers.

Alberto’s Lounge
17–19 Alberta Street, Sydney
(02) 9347 2626

Hours
Mon to Thu 5pm–midnight
Fri & Sat 12pm–midnight
Sun 12pm–midnight

albertoslounge.com

This story originally appeared in Sydney Print Issue 17