When asked to describe Orazio D’Elia, chef and co-owner of Maurice Terzini’s new Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta in Bondi, Icebergs’ general manager Rachel Duffy laughs, before settling on “Italian. Really Italian.”
D’Elia, 33, commands the kitchen and floor of the restaurant and speaks with a steadfast intensity that on first meeting, can seem almost confronting. But behind the gelled hair and un-wavering gaze there’s a simmering Italian charm, and the sense that, really, he just wants to present food that people love to eat. And eat they do. There’s no denying the effect this young chef has on the people around him, both those he works with and those close to him.
“He’s really into his food. Big time. Food and people, he loves every bit of it,” says Duffy. As for Terzini, who first noticed D’Elia as the buzz grew around the chef’s work at Popolo, he simply says, “He reminds me of what it is to be Italian.” Coming from the man linked inextricably to Italian food in Sydney, this is no throw-away comment. So what is it about D’Elia that inspires such raves from those he works with?
Charting the course of D’Elia’s early culinary career is not easy. Hailing from Pomigliano d’Arco, Naples, D’Elia has worked his way from Italy’s tip to toe. He’s jumped from Monte Carlo to the Caribbean, Madagascar and, twice, to Sydney. When tracked on a map, the one constant to D’Elia’s movements is that they follow the coast. So what better place to open his first restaurant than Bondi Beach?
Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta isn’t a run-of-the-mill Italian joint. D’Elia has teamed up with Terzini and Duffy, the food powerhouses behind Bondi’s Icebergs, in creating the restaurant. The chef came of age in the Icebergs kitchen, and the restaurant that bears his name signals a return to the kind of traditional Italian food found in the Terzini and D’Elia family homes.
In unmistakable contrast to Icebergs’ bird’s-nest location on the south edge of Bondi’s cliff, Da Orazio is tucked off the main drag of Hall Street, representing the flipside to a suburb often dismissed as all surface, no substance. The service can be brusque, and this Italian aloofness has both drawn people in while alienating others. But there’s no doubting the standard of the food. The pizza is some of the best you’ll find in this city, while other dishes; handmade pasta, grilled meats and the porchetta you’ll spy on the counter as soon as you enter, are worth every second spent trying to secure a table. In January of this year, as D’Elia fired up the 2.7 tonne pizza oven imported from Naples, he anxiously awaited first orders. He needn’t have worried. From the first service, the place was abuzz.
“We’ve got three different buzzes in the restaurant,” says D’Elia. “We’ve got the five o’clock buzz; kids running around, jumping on tables, sliding on the handrail outside. Next there are families with teenagers and after that, especially on weekends, you see all these Bondi superstars rocking down, big tables, hot chicks, good looking boys, and that’s when we crank the music.” Stay to the end of a busy night and it’s clear these different groups of diners have all found a home at Da Orazio. That the restaurant can and does cater to such a broad cross-section of the community is testament to Terzini’s experience, and, needless to say, the dishes coming out of the kitchen.
But before tossing pizza in Bondi, before his sprightly sojourns across Europe and before rebelling at culinary school, it all started with rice, stuck to his grandmother’s ceiling. “When I was young, I was always watching what my Grandma was cooking. When she left the house I would run into the kitchen and make the best mess ever,” says D’Elia. “After my first day at chef school I came home and made some arancini with my friend. I don’t know how, but my grandma was cleaning rice off the ceiling the next day,” he laughs.
As he studied to qualify as a professional chef with a diploma in hospitality management, D’Elia developed a work-hard, play-hard attitude. At 16, he travelled to Lemnos, Greece, for work experience. “We were meant to be there for two months, but we got fired after three weeks because we were out of control,” he grins. “One guy played the guitar, so we always ended up in a big circle, singing with the guests and staff at the end of the night.”
Partly because of Europe’s seasonal workforce (where coastal restaurants are slammed over summer then often take a winter hiatus) and partly because of what D’Elia calls his “six-month itch,” before moving to Sydney in 2006, D’Elia had never worked in one restaurant for longer than six months.
“2004 was the biggest year of my life,” he says. “I was in the Caribbean for three months, Africa for three months and then I came to Australia.” With a one-year visa in hand, this was his first taste of Sydney. The plan was twofold: learn English and visit close-friend Lucio De Falco, of Lucio Pizzeria in Darlinghurst. De Falco and D’Elia were practically neighbours in Naples; and when it comes to pizza, De Falco is still one of D’Elia’s mentors.
But time ran out and D’Elia returned to Naples to join his father, two younger brothers and sister in the family business. Not a pizzeria, nor a trattoria, but baby supplies. “I loved cooking, but the family business had always been in the back of my mind and that’s why I needed to learn English, to help grow the business,” he says. “And back then, I needed a break.”
But the suit didn’t fit and his new career as a sales rep didn’t last long. In March 2006, D’Elia arrived back in Sydney. Gone was the party-boy attitude. Straight off the plane, he started at L’Incontro in the city’s north. Within two months he’d been appointed head chef, a role he held for three years before moving to Limoncello in Double Bay, where he stayed for another two.
His next move landed him in the media spotlight, and helped Popolo Rushcutters Bay land rave reviews. Across the road, Terzini was working with the team at Neild Avenue, keeping close watch. “Maurice would come in to Popolo for a plate of pasta and he could see the work I was doing,” D’Elia says. When his stint at Popolo came to an end, Terzini was ready and waiting. “Maurice still talks about the fregola dish he had at Popolo when Orazio was cooking,” says Duffy, speaking about the moment it clicked for the pair. “I still never hear the end of that dish! After that meal, they met and decided to start something together. That was the real beginning.
” Joining Ben Horne as co-head chef of Icebergs in late 2012, D’Elia felt right at home. “It was the greatest office of my life,” he says. “It reminded me of the Amalfi Coast. I would walk in every morning and be inspired.” Duffy recalls D’Elia’s time as particularly significant for the restaurant, especially in the way he brought the team together. “He really injected that true Italian style back into Icebergs,” she says. “We were more Mediterranean before in terms of the menu. But it wasn’t just that. He would organise things for everyone to do, all the Italian chefs. He’d arrange for them to go out for dinner, down to The Apollo in Potts Point maybe. He was always doing group things.”
All the while, Terzini had been toying with the concept of a casual Italian spin-off. In January 2013 the duo started discussing what is now Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta, opening the white-washed, open-plan eatery 12 months later. Not simply a dialed-back version of Icebergs, Terzini and D’Elia wanted a restaurant that was comfortable for everyone from eight years old to 80. “We hardly carried any dishes from one restaurant to the other, because each restaurant is different,” D’Elia says. As with each new venue he opens, Terzini had a vision right from the beginning, from the uniforms, to the colour of the room, to the cutlery and plates. On top of Terzini’s attention to aesthetic detail, the opening of Da Orazio signalled a turn back to Icebergs’ Italian roots in the kitchen. “Maurice’s really passionate about it again,” says Duffy.
Neapolitan pizzas pour out of the wood-fired oven; chefs spit-roast Berkshire pigs for Roman-style porchetta - “the food I want to eat,” says Terzini - and stylish wait staff balance generous carafes of wine. “We wanted an open kitchen, so everyone can see what we do,” says D’Elia. “So you can see guys working their arses off carving a pig. So you can see the passion.”
Following the city-wide trend, at Da Orazio, chefs are not consigned to windowless kitchens, but are out in the open, where their “passion” is plain to see. Does this transparency make the food taste any better? We’re not sure, but here, as a thick slice of herb-stuffed porchetta is sandwiched into focaccia in plain view of hungry diners, it certainly helps.
De Falco and Terzini may be D’Elia’s mentors, but his true sources of inspiration are his grandmothers. “My grandmother on my mother’s side lived near the water in Naples, and my grandmother on my father’s side is more towards the heel of Naples, near the mountains. So I grew up with two different Italian cultures,” says D’Elia.
He’s even stolen a few of their recipes for the restaurant. At Christmas, D’Elia’s grandmother would cook a bacalla-style seafood dish that has inspired his latest addition to the menu; blue-eye cod in pastella with baby-green peppers and confit cherry tomatoes. Char-grilled octopus is notably tender, thanks to years of practice cooking one of Naples’ most-loved seafood species. “It’s a simple dish, but everyone is crazy about it because of the way the octopus is cooked,” he says. Every February, D’Elia’s family would kill a pig to make salami and sausages - a memory that is evoked every time he makes porchetta.
D’Elia’s grandmother on his father’s side instilled his obsession with freshly baked bread. “When I bake bread it the morning the smell takes me straight back to Italy. “My grandma would make everything from entree to dessert, but the recipes were never on a piece of paper, they were just off the top of her head.”
All this, and yet, wasn’t it a bit risky to open a pizza and porchetta restaurant in a suburb with a reputation for buff beach types and hipsters obsessing over activated almonds and kale smoothies? D’Elia admits his style of cooking is lighter than is perhaps traditional. As he says, you have to play to your strengths, your diners, and, most importantly, your passion. “Orazio reminded me why I always eat Italian food,” says Terzini.
Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta
3/75–79 Hall St, Bondi Beach
(02) 8090 6969