To fully understand the credentials and crossovers of the team behind Redfern’s newest restaurant, Fontana, you would need a conspiracy board and some string. Owners Daniel Johnston, Ivey Wawn, and Harry Levy have all earned their stripes, and crossed paths, working in some of Sydney’s most arresting restaurants of the last decade.
The three owners are best known for Don Peppino’s (the temporary diner in the old matriarch of Sydney venues, the Grand Pacific Blue Room in Paddington) and, before that, Italian pop-ups Wilmer and Alfio’s. When Don Peppino’s closed, Johnston became head chef at Alberto’s Lounge, Wawn looked after wine at Cafe Paci, and Levy opened Porcine in Paddington with Nik Hill and Matt Fitzgerald. Wawn and Johnston, and much of their team, cut their teeth at Italian wine bar Vini in Surry Hills, which has since closed.
“We are all friends who have been together for so long,” Wawn tells Broadsheet. “Dan and Harry were always going to open something after Don’s closed. Dan had actually fallen in love with this space [the former Ron’s Upstairs on Redfern Street] when he first saw it five years ago, so when we got the call that it was available again we knew it was meant to be.”
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It’s been all hands on deck as the crew prepare to launch their first permanent venue. The red-carpet welcome is an inheritance from Ron’s – Fontana has kept the carpeted staircase and made it sing by wrapping the surrounding walls and ceiling in a vibrant mural painted by Wawn’s sister, Claudia Wawn. Danny Guthrie, who worked with the team at Don Peppino’s is in the kitchen, and sharing management duties with Wawn is Eglé Januškevičius (Cafe Paci, Cornersmith). The restaurant worked with design studio Oko Olo on the interiors. The tables have come from Vini via Don’s, and many of the chairs are upcycled from Arthur in Surry Hills. Chanel Tobler, the artist whose works hang on the walls, also worked at Don Peppino’s – it’s like a (very good-looking) Frankenstein’s monster made up of Sydney hospo parts.
An impression of what the restaurant would look like, drawn by Wawn’s friend Celeste Stein, sits inside the menu sleeves (also inherited from Ron’s). The intricate illustration is a fine place to rest your eyes as you nurse a Martini and wait for your dinner date. Speaking of Martinis, the dirty gin Martini hits all the right spots. Two plump gordal olives make it a savoury balm, as much an entree as it is a drink.
The menu is a love letter to regional Italian cuisine and has a classic Italian layout. “He loves pasta, and has a deep history of engaging with Italian cooking,” Wawn says of Johnston, who is also her life partner. “Think a Mediterranean holiday, think specific regional dishes, think produce-focused, detail-oriented simplicity, mash it together and you might end up somewhere near the offerings at Fontana.”
The artichoke alla giudia is a classic starting point: deep-fried whole artichoke with frizzled leaves and a meaty heart. While developing the menu Johnston obsessed over his ricotta, which he sets with vegetable rennet. The creamy slab works a treat alongside a dinner roll with a darkly caramelised cap of balsamic vinegar, or the house-made focaccia, which is baked in a cast-iron pan and studded with confit garlic. It’s best to save some of that bread to dunk in the tomato sugo that covers a wild ride of polpette di sarde – a plate of sardine “meatballs” with currants and pine nuts.
There are three pastas: a vibrant moss-green fettuccine verde; paccheri (a wide tube pasta) served with a rich kangaroo ragu; and ceci e tria, a chickpea pasta that has become a signature for the group. First served at Wilmer, it was inspired by a dish both Johnston ate in the southern Italian city of Lecce and couldn’t stop thinking about.
“We also had it on the menu at Don’s, and here it is again. People have come to know us for this dish,” says Wawn.
Sebadas, fried Sardinian sweets, are filled with ricotta and pecorino and topped with honey and fennel seeds. And while a pistachio gelato might sound simple, it will be the dessert you come back for. Filter coffee from Mecca, or a little nocino (walnut liqueur), and a selection of biscotti are a classic end to the meal.
The small wine list is a beautifully curated selection of natural drops from around the world. Rather than having a house wine, Wawn has ensured the list captures a friendly pricepoint in each colour. There are four by the glass in white and red, and one each of sparkling, pink and orange.
“I’ve included some bits and bobs for starting and finishing a meal to encourage people to think beyond what they normally order,” says Wawn. “While we do have amaro, it’s not on the menu. People already know amaro. What they don’t know is this wild quince liqueur, or a Pedro Ximenez finishing sherry. No one ever picks an Armagnac but it’s amazing.”
The team have also been busy looking to the future by squirrelling special bottles away in their burgeoning cellar.
“All our other venues have been short term,” she says. “This is here to stay. It’s our first proper home.”
133A Redfern Street, Redfern
Wed to Fri 5.30pm–midnight
Sat midday–4pm, 5.30pm–midnight