When Dan Pepperell founded the kitchen at 10 William Street, co-owner Gio Paradiso said to him, “I want Italian food”. What turned up on the plate wasn’t quite that.
Instead, he introduced Sydney to a new genre of cooking – a blend of Italian and Australian styles, serving cured bonito with finger lime, pretzels with bottarga, and konbu tacos with sea urchin.
And now, after turning his hand to French food at the opulent Hubert, Pepperell is returning to his past passion: pasta.
Swillhouse Group’s Anton and Stefan Forte (Hubert, Shady Pines, Baxter Inn, Frankie’s Pizza) have teamed up with colleague Toby Hilton to take over the old Berta space in Surry Hills, and put Pepperell in the kitchen of their modern 1960s-style Italian enoteca, Alberto.
Stretched across both venues as executive chef, Pepperell will be busy. “Dan is pumped to cook Italian. He said, ‘Man, I just want to cook Italian again.’ He’s spent so much time on steak, he’s super pumped about it. There will be heaps of surprises,” says Forte.
Expect a space inspired by Italian film director Federico Fellini. “It’s going to be a really cosy, ’60s, Fellini-inspired enoteca; really warm. We’re going to have fun with it. Cinematic Italian, with cheesy music, Nancy Sinantra, old Italian tunes … I dunno, it’s just going to be fun,” he says.
Don’t expect to see the same man in the kitchen at Alberto you saw at 10 William Street though. Pepperell is poised to do away with pretzels and bottarga for tandoori lasagne; Caribbean-style salted fish pie; bistecca grilled on the robata grill; pork-jowl sausage; vongole; lamb shoulder; and tomato and eggplant carpaccio. “We’ve all matured as operators and people – this is the kind of space we want to hang out in now,” says Forte.
Surry Hills seems to have come back into fashion as a dining destination, from Chin Chin and Ortzi, to Poly and Caffe Bartolo, which is set to open later this year. Are they tapping into its renaissance? “I’ve always loved Berta. I also think the whole Surry Hills precinct is super cool. Berta is in this weird, unique no man’s land though. It has this really cool entry with the laneway behind it. It’s a beautiful layout and [has] history,” says Forte.
While the menu is original, it won’t be experimental for the sake of being experimental. “We’re not here to shock you or say, ‘Look at how creative we can be’. I think that’s for other people to explore.”
The team is also looking forward to thinking small for a change. “Hubert is such a big production. We’re not trying to be too formula driven here and too much of a fancy restaurant. It’s a drop in, casual space with good food, good booze and good service.”
The design will be classic, amplifying theatre above all else. “The way we design is usually around the service, around what we’re serving and how we’re serving it. [We look at] how the staff is going to be able to work in the space. A lot of design is based around how you pick up a wine glass, where you chop your bread … every nook and cranny has to be workable,” says Forte.
There’ll be a built-in wine storage system where staff can jump up and grab a bottle during service, lots of dark colours, and beautiful Italian posters lining the walls. Custom-made brass light fixtures, timber and green leather booths will finish the look. “The entry is going to be a crazy kind of boozy tunnel lined with stand-up tables. It’s really thin and a good place to grab a drink,” says Forte.
The city’s prospects for Italian seem to get brighter year on year. As Forte says, “Italian food is always good; it’s always delicious.”
Alberta is slated to open in Surry Hills on Alberta Street in mid-November.