It’s rare in Sydney to find an Italian restaurant full of Italians. Try Osteria Riva late on Sunday or Monday night. It’s crazy. Always full, always loud. They’re not necessarily locals, either. They’ve come, just like they did the week before, because Osteria Riva serves a style of Italian food that’s not very common: the food of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy.
“Italy doesn't have a proper cuisine,” says Andrea Riva, the chef and owner. “It's divided by region and each region has a totally different cuisine.” For a long time, Sydney has been dominated by the cuisines of southern Italy, because that’s where the vast majority of Italian migrants came from. Recently, regional Italian food has become much more common, but few places are as dedicated to their regional cuisine as Riva. “When you live out of your country, and you find a restaurant that produces the typical things of where you're born, you go crazy,” he says.
Emilia Romagna is home to many of Italy’s most famous products and Riva, along with Claudio Coppola (a chef he’s been working with for more than a decade), spend an incredible amount of time and effort either importing or making the foods of their home. The most essential is the piadina, a soft, slightly chewy flat bread eaten with almost every meal. “This is typical of Romagna. It’s found just within a 50-kilometre area, that's it. People come here and say, 'OMG the piadina’,” Riva says, laughs.
There’s also prosciutto di Parma; mortadella from Bologna; stracchino (a young, creamy, cow-milk cheese), culatello (a cured meat Riva describes as “the best prosciutto”), and perhaps the most distinct product of the region, formaggio di fossa. “It's a hard cheese, mixed cow and sheep. It's strange, they put it underground. Then in November we have a big party to open the cheese. It's very spicy, very strong,” says Riva.
The next course brings more of the region’s famous products – red wine (like barbera and sangiovese) and handmade pasta. The most typical form is capeletti (a stuffed pasta shaped like a priest’s hat filled with ricotta, parmesan, stracchino and nutmeg), lasagne and tagliatelle al ragu. “The difference here is the thickness. In my region, where pasta was born, it’s thick and properly al dente. You want to feel the pasta, you know?”
Riva admits many people bow out after a few piadinas and a plate of antipasti, but particularly enthusiastic eaters go on to order a cut of sirloin or a grilled fish with another glass of sangiovese. Riva and his team run an enviably long list of north-east Italian wines. The uninitiated need just ask front-of-house man Valerio Fabbri for tips. He’s a Romagnolo native and will point you towards a suitable choice.