Canberra is arranged in distinct suburbs, each serviced by their set of own restaurants and stores. For Deakin, which sits inside the Parliamentary triangle at the gateway to five prominent Canberra suburbs, it’s a local shopping centre on Hopetoun Circuit. This suburban strip mall boasts a pharmacy, a bottle shop, an IGA supermarket, a café and Locale Pizzeria.
Locale looks like the kind of place that – if you were a local – you’d hit up whenever you felt like an easy, midweek dinner. The food is everyday Italian – simple, generously proportioned and enjoyable to eat. Where Locale nudges into something more impressive than a locals-only, suburban Italian, is by ensuring they don’t miss a beat…
With the days of al fresco dining drawing to their seasonal finish, we took advantage of the warm weather and pulled up in their outdoor cabana.
With a voice that instantly took me back to Play School, Noni Hazlehurst is holding court at the next table, with a gaggle of gal-pals. It’s the kind of menu that lends itself to a long girly catch-up with easy-to-share antipasti and pizza, backed by decent, well-priced wine. And, with an outdoor spritz bar in the works, Locale is only going to get better.
With most wines available by the glass, and a focus on Italian - both imported and Italian varietals we grow here - plus a nod to their location in the Canberra region, there’s already plenty to get excited about. We start with a foot in each camp – an easy-drinking Italian Monte Tondo ‘Mito’ Soave ($9.50/glass) and a local guy, the pretty, citrussy Ravensworth Riesling ($11/glass).
Both go gangbusters with seafood, and the Calamari Fritti ($18) here is fantastic. Seasoned with their own intriguing salt’n’pepper spice blend, it’s oil-free and super tender – arguably the best version of this dish I’ve tried.
Fiori Di Zucchine ($19) are another thing Locale get exactly right. Battered so ephemerally their colours shine through, the still-crisp zucchini flowers explode on the palate with a generous amount of creamy goat’s cheese.
While Slow Braised Fremantle Octopus ($24) with kipfler potatoes and lemon butter is handled well and kept simple to highlight the quality produce, the maddening smell of baking dough and Australian garlic kept reminding me to save some room for pizza.
Clutching an off-road powered skateboard – an anniversary present from his wife – charismatic owner Omar Muscat, pops by my table and gives me the lowdown on his pizzas. The son of two pastry chefs, Muscat is an experienced restaurateur. His hospitality journey began at age sixteen, and his first venue – a sandwich shop in Woden Plaza - came at the tender age of twenty-two.
While at its peak, his stable of venues - held with former business partner Michael Nagy - numbered twelve and included Double Shot café next door, Muscat has pared back to focus on life and family, keeping Locale and Urban Pantry in Manuka.
Muscat has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what customers want Locale to be, and how they’ll use his pizzeria. Deciding on a Roman style base (so it stands up to takeaway and delivery) Muscat took his key staff to Sydney to be trained by Ventuno in Walsh Bay. With a 48-hour proofing process, his own dough began its journey with theirs as a starter.
It’s tasty and easy to digest on your must-try pizza – the Gamberi ($25) – which is actually the best prawn pizza I’ve ever eaten. It’s eye-catchingly green, with still-juicy prawns, spinach, mascarpone, chilli oil and fior di latte, plus slivers of leek that’ll have you wondering why don’t we see more leek on pizza!
We teamed our pizza with Risotto ($34) made with Fraser Island spanner crab, Moreton Bay bugs and spring onions. With toothsome rice it’s light, lemony and likeable, with lively green chilli bite, that keeps it bright and summery rather than nutty, creamy or stodgy. Against another local - the Mada Wines Nebbiolo Rose ($11/glass) - the two dishes seem to be made for eating together, like a fist in a glove.
Kicking back over coffee and Cassata di Casa ($14) made by Muscat’s pastry-chef Mum, you can colour me impressed. Not only is this nutty vanilla bean ice cream dessert a particular winner (generally, I don’t even like cassata), so is the whole package. Locale is the product of a confident owner, smart enough to aim directly at being a mid-range community hub rather than being famous. We'd all be lucky to have a focused, local pizzeria of its calibre.
Shop 5, Hopetoun Circuit, Deakin ACT
Ph: (02) 6162 2888
Thanks to AGFG for arranging my visit.