Team Italia

By David Dale
January 13, 2004  - Published in the Sydney Morning Herlad, Good Living


Preserving the tradition of la vera cucina is the driving force behind Sydney's latest food movement.

A dozen men and women are sitting around a big square table covered with a blinding white tablecloth. They are drinking mineral water or black coffee. They are speaking with such passion that an outsider might think they are arguing but, in fact, they are united with one aim: to preserve cooking traditions which they fear are vanishing from Australia.

Most of them were born into Italian families, either here or in Italy. Those from other backgrounds are students of Italian food ways.

They operate some of Sydney's finest restaurants, such as Grappa and Elio in Leichhardt, Buon Ricordo and Lucio's in Paddington, Il Piave and L'Unico in Balmain, Zenith in Annandale, Mosaic in the city and Cala Luna at The Spit in Mosman.

Capitalism should make them bitter rivals for the shrinking Sydney restaurant dollar. But they've been meeting every few weeks for the past nine months because their concern for the future outweighs their natural competitiveness. Their group doesnt have a name yet, though they quite like Italian Culinary Association in Australia.

What follows is an amalgam of two morning meetings, the first held in the front room of Lucio's and the second a couple of weeks later in Buon Ricordo. The participants were trying to define the qualities of a good Italian restaurant.

They'd already agreed that the first essentials are freshness of ingredients and generosity of service.

Buried in this dialogue is the potential for a revolution in Australias favourite food, even if the players haven't quite recognised it yet. If they continue in the direction laid out here, Sydney's Next Big Thing could be its oldest thing.

These restaurateurs have nothing against innovation but they also know that Italian food has been researched and developed for 2000 years and rests on strong foundations. They worry that if no one maintains the flame and teaches the classics to the next generation, a body of accumulated wisdom will be lost and with it, some of lifes greatest pleasures.

So these players are quietly working on a plan of their own to protect the traditions and integrity of Italian cooking - a plan which may include providing advice to members of the association on writing menus, selecting produce and wine; and ensuring Italian chefs are properly schooled in the true basics. It may even involve a system which officially recognises traditional Italian restaurants and dishes.

The cast of characters in this short play are:

Armando Percuoco, from Naples, who runs Buon Ricordo; Lucio Galletto, born near Genoa, who runs Lucio's; Danny Russo, born in Australia to parents from Basilicata, who runs L'Unico; Vanessa Martin, born here into a family from the Veneto, who runs Il Piave; Massimo Bianchi, from Rome, who runs Mosaic; Giovanni Pilu and Marilyn Annecchini, from Sardinia, who run Cala Luna.

Armando Percuoco We have a contingent of people here who feel very Italian, even if they weren't born there. But we don't have immigration any more like 30 years ago, where Italians would come here and try to build a community. So are we going to die and become like the Italians in America? I love this country, I battle for this country, but I think we should remember our origins.

Danny Russo In order for us to go forward, we need to respect the classics.

Vanessa Martin But we have to re-educate the public. We've lost the idea of Italian food in its original form. There's been Thai this and fusion food that and different styles have been in vogue. People think they know Italian food but they don't.

Massimo Bianchi If you're in Milan, you eat completely differently from in Naples. I think we should promote this regionalism. We should repropose local traditions, maybe presented in a more modern way, more suitable for these times. People always associate us with lasagna or spaghetti bolognese. We, as chefs, have to make an effort to study our pasts. I come from Rome; I am interested in old Roman recipes.

Percuoco But in Italy, it doesn't just vary from region to region, it varies from hill to hill. And Italian can change: obviously, 500 years ago, when the first chef put a tomato on the plate, somebody said: My God, this guy's not right in the head.We can use local ingredients but we try to achieve the spirit of Italian food: the taste, the smell and the philosophy. And if someone says they are doing traditional recipes, they should do it the right way. They can say its my version, but then they shouldn't call it the traditional name.

Martin Some customers say to me, That other place doesn't do this like you and I say Yes, they're southern Italian, I'm northern Italian, I do it a different way. They think that because Thai food is all the same in Sydney, Italian must be all the same.

Lucio Galletto Ideally, this association, or whatever we call it, will be represented at the catering schools in Sydney, where they teach the basics of cooking. At the moment, they learn the basics of French cooking but do they learn the Italian traditions?

Russo At those colleges, they should have Italian chefs come over there to show them how to make pizza, or even what is a real bolognese.

Percuoco Not all Italians know what to do. I saw this cookbook by that [Giuliano] Bugialli. He's a Florentine but he has a recipe for a Neapolitan sauce and he puts carrots and celery in it. What the bloody hell is that?

Galletto That's Genovese.

Percuoco He destroys my Neapolitan sauce. We've made that for 500 years.

Galletto We can't control him.

Percuoco But people read that and expect to have it done that way. We can't stop him but we have an obligation as an association to say to the journalists in this country that Bugialli is wrong. They won't listen to me or you on our own but they might listen to an association.

Bianchi People come into my restaurant and they say, "You are from Rome, can you do carbonara?". So I do carbonara and they say "Why you don't put cream in this?" They had it that way in their local place. Chefs can do it that way if they want but they cant say its the traditional recipe.

Russo The little trattorias have been doing it that way with the cream and the shallots and so on, and the pizzas 10 inches thick, because they don't know any better. If there was an association, people who wanted to know could contact us and find out.

Percuoco Italians are the perfect hosts. We know hospitality because of our mothers. Mama gave us this; that we try to give bigger portions. Maybe that's why restaurants that call themselves Italian are more full than any others and everyone is getting on the bandwagon. We don't want to be the police to tell people what they must do but we should have a symbol that you can put outside to tell the public your place is doing Italian food in a traditional way - or an emblem on the menu that says this dish is the authentic one.

Russo When people come into our restaurants, without them knowing it, we are educating them about a way of life.

Percuoco But as an association we can educate them before they come into the restaurant. Perhaps we can help some of the journalists and food writers. It would be nice to have a forum with the public and the media, to let them understand what were on about.

Martin Sometimes they don't know what they're writing about, even when they are saying something nice about you. When I first started, I got a write-up that praised me for my homemade pasta. But I was using bought fusilli. Now I make my own pasta but back then, the writer couldn't tell the difference.

Percuoco So what sort of organisation do we want, guys?

Giovanni Pilu With Marilyn, I've written a few ideas on what we might do - a few points about what we stand for: To safeguard Italian culinary culture so it can be handed down to the upcoming generation; to provide support and advice to members of the association in all aspects of restaurant operation, including menus, selection of produce, wine and service, ambience, etc; to promote initiatives such as Italian festivals and special events to increase awareness of traditional values in Italian food.

Percuoco That's terrific.

Marilyn Annecchini So, for the next meeting we need to think about a president, a vice-president, a secretary and a treasurer, and we need to think of a name, and we need to get a name registered. Someone has to do the crappy paperwork. If you like, I'll do that.

The origins of this group can probably be traced back to the year 1979, when Galletto ran into Percuoco in a Kings Cross alley. Pulcinella restaurant, which Percuoco had just opened with his father, backed onto the alley, as did the rear of Natalinos, where Galletto was working as a waiter.

Two skinny young immigrants, out the back for a smoke, fell into conversation about the state of eating in Sydney. Galletto was from Liguria and Percuoco was from Naples, so they had to speak in the Italian they'd learned at school rather than the dialects they used at home but they quickly found common ground:

Australians really didn't know much about the way Italians ate. The dominant food fashion at the time was French, and Percuoco was fired up to prove that Italian could be finer than French, without the snobbery.

Both were admirers of Beppi Polese, who had opened Sydney's first significant Italian restaurant in 1956. That man went through hell at the beginning, Percuoco says, because people didn't understand Italian food. But he cleared the road for us, the next generation, and made it easy for us to open restaurants, and we wanted to take it to the next level.

Over the next two decades, as Galletto opened his own place in Paddington and Percuoco moved to Buon Ricordo, they continued their discussions after work over bowls of spaghetti allaglio e olio (spaghetti tossed in oil, garlic and chilli). Gradually, other friends in the restaurant business began to join their midnight meetings.

Then in 2002, the cheerful chats turned serious. The restaurateurs needed to respond to a proposal from Italy's Agriculture Minister, Giovanni Alemanno, for a system of international certification to guarantee the authenticity of restaurants calling themselves Italian.

Hundreds of Italian restaurants are created around the world every day, Alemanno said. But in most cases the only thing Italian about them is the name or a tricolour flag on display outside. He said restaurants which used products imported from Italy should be able to display a mark of approval awarded by Italy's restaurant association.

At the time, Percuoco expressed his doubts about this plan in the Herald: "They are trying to make more money for trade. I won't be blackmailed to buy more Italian products. I use as much Australian produce as I can in my restaurant. Australian olive oil is getting to be very good now and we finally have nice Australian tomatoes. If I use them, my cooking is still authentic Italian.

"If they want to give my restaurant a certificate on merit, that's fine. But if they won't give it unless I use more imports, then I don't give a damn, and my customers don't give a damn."

In response to Percuoco's comments, the international restaurant organisation Ciao Italia attacked him in its newsletter, saying he ought to call himself an Australian restaurateur, not an Italian restaurateur. "I was the bad boy, I was written about that I was a traitor because I was arguing with the Italian government," he recalls, now able to laugh at something that initially enraged him.

Galletto was equally angry: "If they're going to say we're not Italian because we use Australian ingredients, what do they say about all the pasta in Italy made with Australian wheat? We use ingredients that are fresh and seasonal and from the locality. That's what Italians do, whether were in Genoa or in Sydney."

Galvanised by the attack from Ciao Italia, Galletto and Percuoco made their meetings more regular, more organised and more focused. At a session next month, they hope to appoint a spokesperson who will not be a restaurateur and will draw up a blueprint that could change the way Sydney sees Italian food.

Percuoco is delighted with progress so far: "You know that 20 years ago, Sydney could not have had a group like this. It was a different generation, we were worried about the others stealing our secrets and stealing our customers. These new ones are young, intelligent and united. Instead of saying 'me, me, me', they say 'us'.

We're not doing this for business, for publicity. Each one of us has a full house. We don't need to make ourselves bigger. We want to work for the benefit of Italian heritage and Italian culture, or it won't be here in 100 years.

This is for our children and our grandchildren."

David Dale has written a book called Soffritto - a search for beginnings with Lucio Galletto about a village in Liguria.


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