Chef: Riccardo Momesso
Hip pocket: About $50 a head for food
Open: Friday-Sunday noon-3pm (antipasti all day), Tuesday-Sunday 5.30-10.30pm
Highlights: Popcorn, wine service, the buzz, the donkey-free menu
Lowlights: Wild chicory and cool pizza
Phone: 9826 8815
We rate it: 7 out of 10
The last time I went to a Calabrian restaurant the kitchen sent out slow-roasted donkey, which tastes a bit like wild boar but the meat is more funky and pungent and, basically, I think, inedible. Likewise the lamb’s brain (actually an entire sheep’s head with eyeballs, teeth, everything) and the cow’s intestines.
It takes a substantial leap of faith to re-enter the murky world of Mafia cuisine, but the lure of Riccardo Momesso’s cooking gets me over the hump. He’s the talented Italian who put Sarti on the map of city must-eats. Now he’s opened Valentino, the new Calabrian sensation in, of all places, Hawksburn.
Given the refined tastes of locals, there’s only limited offal on offer here – namely a stew called U Morzeddhu, which I couldn’t bring myself to try because that sheep’s head still haunts me. But there’s plenty else on the menu to reward adventurous diners.
The goat, for example, is great – served either as a rustic, rib-sticking braise wallowing in wine-, garlic- and oregano-scented juices, the meat so soft it seems to dissolve on the tongue, or as a stewed ragu tossed through hand-cut tagliatelle. (“I thought the rabbit was beautifully cooked,” my friend says. Yes it was, dear, but it was goat.)
Then there’s the neonati, “newborn” whitebait so tiny and foetal they don’t even have eyes yet. They’re sort of packed into a shapeless blob that’s stained and spiced with chilli. The flavour is subtly pleasant – not really fishy at all, just generically savoury with an interesting flaky texture and a backhander of chilli.
Hot red peppers feature prominently at Valentino, on the menu and in the décor – red, chilli-shaped lightbulbs dangle from the ceiling to remind diners they’re not in northern Italy any more.
The staff, several of them imported from the mother country, are mostly charming. When we say we’d like to try a southern wine but don’t know which to pick, a waitress promptly pours three generous tasting glasses so we can assess their relative merits. I’m halfway tipsy before we even order a carafe of the Sicilian grecanico. Each of the dozen reds and whites is available by the glass, carafe or reasonably priced bottle to encourage experimentation. Filtered water is $3 for an unlimited supply of still or sparkling.
But back to the food. One taste of the nduja, a spicy spreadable sausage filling of pork and roasted chilli, hints at why this spot has taken off. It’s a small serve for $10 (surely the stuff can’t be that expensive) but it gives plenty of oral bang for the buck.
Likewise a simple baccalà (salt cod) ravioli in a Napoli-style sauce of tomatoes and basil, muddled with more neonati (“the leetle baby fish”, as our waiter calls them). The basil is wildly aromatic but the tomatoes are the heroes. They’re Sicilian pachinos imported by the tin but somehow still glossy and bursting with sunny, sweet, almost briny flavours. After tasting these tomatoes, you’ll be spoilt for any other.
Not so Valentino’s pizzas. The one we try arrives cool and quickly turns cold so conditions are not ideal to appreciate its chunks of porky sausage and wilted rape (kale) congealed in mozzarella. It’s tasty enough, just not that enjoyable.
Conversely, the suppli (arancini) are enjoyable enough – with their moist, cooked-rice texture and deep-fried crust – but not all that tasty. They’re supposed to be filled with calamari, peas and broad bean tips but there’s scant evidence of any of the above. And while we’re on dud dishes, the barramundi carpaccio with mandarin and pistachio only comes alive when you sluice it with some of the chilli oil supplied on every table. Without it, the fish is insipid.
Mains change daily but if it’s on, try the suckling pig spiked with the Calabrian liqueur Amaro del Capo. The grog gives the succulent meat a caramelised, herbal character. Its richness is nicely offset with fennel but the dish is almost ruined for us by chewy ropes of wild chicory.
There’s only one dessert you need bother with. The panna cotta is the colour of green tea with the texture of condensed custard. While it’s meant to be pistachio, the dominant taste is marzipan, which may or may not appeal. Concentrate instead on the two large, coral-shaped branches of caramel-salted popcorn. They’re sensational – each crunchy bite floods the mouth with sugary, slightly salty, toffeeness. The pleasure’s almost enough to kill the memory of that sheep’s head.