For young chef Alex Keene, growing up on his family’s farm made his future as a chef an easy decision. His love of Italian food wasn’t always so apparent.
“When I started, I thought carbonara was just spaghetti, bacon and cream,” Keene says smiling. “That first experience was eye-opening.” He is referring to his apprenticeship, working alongside four Italian chefs at Il Lago in the Hills District. Here Keene discovered that Italian cooking was about so much more than just eating, it was a lifestyle. He was hooked.
Shortly after he began in the industry, he was introduced to Alessandro Pavoni (Ormeggio at The Spit), his mentor and current business partner. When Willoughby’s High Street Bistro went up for sale, the duo, along with third partner Bill Drakopoulos (Aqua Dining), snapped it up.
The menu at Via Alta is heavily influenced by Brecia; inspired by specialties of Pavoni’s hometown in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Notable dishes include, spiedo bresciano, “a typical spit roast from Brescia,” explains Keene, “basted in butter, sage and salt for five hours.” Traditionally made with small Italian songbirds, at Via Alta the meats are more mainstream. A spit of pork neck, chicken or pork ribs is served with soft polenta.
For fish, try the baccalà, which in Brescia is simply salted cod. Keene and his team have slightly Australian-ised this dish, creating a salted cod pie. The foundation is laid in mash, followed by house-cured baccalà, baby spinach and topped with the flaky pastry.
For your sweet tooth, the barbajada is a unique interpretation of a Milanese milkshake-style drink, made into a chocolate and espresso-fused mousse, served with hazelnut, vanilla gelato and caramel sauce.
The key to Italian cooking is simplicity and the celebration of produce. At Via Alta produce is locally sourced with a few imports from Italy, including harder-to-find ingredients such as salami and specialty cheeses. We agree with Keene on this one, “in all honesty, Italy just does some things better.”
197 High Street, Willoughby
(02) 9958 1110
Mon to Fri noon–10pm