Published in the City Hub and City News.
Caffe Sicilia should have been just like all the other restaurants – I eat, I write, and usually I don’t get a chance to visit again – such is the life of a restaurant critic. Somehow though, this one got under my skin. The Sicilian staff weren’t giving anything away. Through the grapevine I heard they’d all been exported from Sicily to work. No wonder they weren’t talking…
The site is one of Surry Hills perennial Thai restaurants, unexpectedly transformed into a surprisingly authentic Sicilian experience that’s almost three restaurants in one. Their day starts very early for the traditional baking routine of Paolo Zanotti, freshly transplanted from his Mediterranean homeland to bring the full arsenal of bready snacks and pastry indulgences.
“My day starts at 4.30am, as the caffe opens at 7am. There is a lot of preparation to be done. With the cannoli preparation, to make one batch, takes two days. The custards and ricotta fillings must be made a day in advance,” explains Paolo. He shows no rancour about making “up to 900 cannoli per week.” I don’t regret eating any of them either. With no disrespect meant to the good bakers of Haberfield, they are a contender for Sydney’s best.
By the time Caffé Sicilia opens for breakfast the counters are covered in everything from savoury ham & cheese Calzone to sweet Nutella-filled Noccione. The coffee is expertly poured and consistently good, with some rather artistic foam touches when Barista BJ Rai is on. I know this because one day, I glanced down into my latte, and jumped because a man was staring right back!
“Since I was a child, I spent a lot of my time sketching and painting. As an adult, I do it on coffees instead of paper and pen. I went to Danes Coffee School when Matthew Brown was the instructor. He poured some amazing Rosetta's and double Rosetta's so that really inspired me to start with coffee art. Other people who I look up to are Jack Hanna, Sam Corra, David Makin and Soji Sasha to name a few,” explains the earnest BJ.
The flavour here is not just Italian, in that generic way we all know and love, it’s Sicilian and you’d better notice the differences. Think of it like a cool warmth or a stylish lack of pretension. But it’s real and it’s good and it’s a long way from fake. It’s also a long way from home.
Pastry and Gelato Chef Giovanni Pistritto admitted that his “transition and relocation to Sydney has not been an easy one”. Through an interpreter he explained: ”coming to Australia to start work at Caffe Sicilia was like a child moving cities and starting their first day at school. This process was made a lot easier as my wife and daughter made the trip with me to Australia. Although I am producing pastry that I was making in Sicily, becoming familiar with the local products (dairy in particular) was challenging and having to tweak recipes to authenticate the traditional flavours was a challenge. Although I miss Sicily as it is my home of birth I have no regrets and am loving my time here in Australia and I see my future for my family here.” Which is lucky, because I see the future of Sydney’s Italian food in here too.
Lunch is tight and confident; full of deceptively simple peasant food dishes packed with flavour and cooked to technical perfection. I keep coming back to the house-made maccaroni with porcetta and fennel seed - so few elements in such perfect harmony takes real guts.
Dinnertime sees it shift into a third restaurant – the big, comprehensive menu is rolled out, the lights dim, the colours and ambience become warmer and the chefs get to fire their heavy artillery in full, multi-course, Southern Italian glory. It’s romantic Euro-nostalgia seems in stark contrast to the bright and buzzy daytime space, a credit to the remarkably adaptable fitout.
This is the kind of place you introduce friends to, confident in the knowledge that they’ll think it’s a real find, and introduce their friends with that same knowing confidence. I’d take anyone from a relative to a client to a date. They’ll all be won over by it’s distinctly and idiosyncratically Sicilian charms.
I’m not done with it yet, either. My next mission is to get acquainted with their new Carpigiani Maestro granita and gelato-making machine. It’s the only one in Australia (I suspect we’ve been robbed) and they’ll be turning out a coarser cut of ice in four traditional flavours – chocolate, lemon, coffee and almond. It’s what the cool kids will be slurping this summer.
628 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Ph: (02) 9699 8787 www.caffesicilia.com.au
Open: 7 days, 7am-12am (Sundays 'til 10pm)