The city lights are sparkling on this clear winter’s night. Vivid Sydney has added an extra dimension to the panoramic view, and we brave the cold to pause outside Cucinetta to take it all in.
Perched on the edge of the Woolwich Lookout, the restaurant looks like a modern, glass-fronted box; however if you venture inside – and you should - you’ll find a warm, earthy space inspired by Tuscany.
Organic materials – exposed bricks, wood paneling and stacked logs over the kitchen pass – are softly accentuated with warm, golden light. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong softly croon their way through the Cole Porter songbook. Even staff look thematic, with white shirts and soft brown pants held up with braces, finished with bow ties and coppole (traditional Italian flat caps).
Led by the talented Restaurant Manager Lucio D’Amico, the well-dressed floor team shepherd us through an experience that feels more like a guided Italian adventure than it does a simple, midweek dinner. We begin with a collection of house-baked breads, and an even more compelling Piadina ($23) that sees a well of truffled honey encased in a coil of buffalo ricotta. The resulting blend is smeared onto herb and garlic flatbread for a clever appetiser that isn't overly sweet.
Honey and cheese are perfect with Prosecco – the 2016 Val D’Oca Prosecco Millesimato Extra Dry ($12/glass) – a frothy, dry drop with tiny bubbles that encourages me to slow down and relax into the languid pace of this restaurant.
In the kitchen, head chef and owner Vincenzo Mazzotta is a star. He works to a modern brief while still keeping a firm grip on being Italian. His Tartare ($28) is a fine exemplar, inserting the Italianate into a French dish by employing the flavours of vitello tonnato – eye fillet beef and tuna aioli. Crispy onion and mustard cress add texture, as does charcoal bread so black the light seems to fall into it. We wash it down with the 2016 Greco Di Tufo Terre Del Vulcano ($13/glass), a sharp, salty seaside wine that, with the dish's earthy flavours, gentles into something more fruit-sweet.
Venturing all over Italy, D’Amico’s wine matches rise to accept the challenge laid down on each plate. With Mazzotta’s signature Gnocchi ($30), D’Amico takes us to his home region, Basilicata, with the 2012 Aglianico Del Vulture Re Manfredi ($100/bottle). Tannic with dark berries and green minty notes, the wine slices through the intensity of the rich Gorgonzola, melding with the aromatic pork sausage. The pillowy-soft potato gnocchi has a lightness that is hard to beat, and it sings against crunchy candied hazelnuts and wet bursts of fig. I am glad to only be splitting a portion with my dining companion, as this dish is fiendishly rich.
The kitchen also kindly carves up our Polpo ($31) to share, serving our long tentacle of Fremantle octopus across two plates. With a quenelle of smoky eggplant, 'nduja (spicy spreadable salami), semi dried tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, this is a loud dish, but there’s nothing that doesn’t belong on the plate.
Mazzotta shows he knows when to stop with Gamberi ($47) - Ballina king prawns grilled under chilli ‘nduja butter with a white wine sauce. The combination is assertive, but artfully centralises the perfectly cooked crustaceans.
It was around this time that D’Amico brought out my wine of the night – a 2016 Plotzner Weissburgunder (Pinot Bianco) St Paul ($75/bottle) – and I started wondering how hard it might be to get a table here on New Year’s Eve. The wine shows off what happens when an Italian winemaker plays around with German grapes - stewed spiced apple that starts sweet then dries up into a whisker of bitterness. New Year's Eve, incidentally, is $300 a head, and it is almost fully booked.
By this stage I’m pretty much full to bursting, so my dining companion’s Anatra ($39), a 16-hour sous vide duck leg passes as somewhat of a blur. I do recall all the Italian roast dinner trappings - apple puree, roasted carrots, little onions, brioche crumbs and sautéed radicchio – and I am sure I would have loved the dish if I had more stomach real estate.
Consider dessert here as pretty much unmissable. Through the wonders of the Internet, I had watched Mazzotta plate up his White Chocolate Semifreddo ($18) earlier in the day. The eye-catching plating had nothing on actually eating this strawberries’n’cream inspired dish. Macerated strawberries mingle with tart mulberry sorbet while shards of wafer-thin strawberry meringue shatter on your lips. It all plays out against a backdrop of premium quality fresh fruit and creamy, semi-frozen white chocolate mousse for a blistering finish that sees us off into the cold night buzzing and elated.
While there’s no escaping that Cucinetta charges premium prices, across all areas this restaurant really delivers.
103 Woolwich Road, Woolwich
Ph: (02) 9817 2125