Tradition meets simplicity at A Tavola boy’s bar and eatery Besser Italian
LET’S be honest — the humble besser brick isn’t exactly what you’d call an aesthetic marvel.
A hollow, dowdy rectangular lump used mostly in the construction of primary school loos, they’re hardly what you imagine locking eyes on as you sip a sauvignon over salmon carpaccio.
But leave the Italians to take something as boring and basic as besser and turn it into an object de beaute.
Heck, Eugenio Maiale (of A Tavola fame) has even named the restaurant after his favourite cinder brick, with Besser now installed in the old Billy Kwong site on Crown Street.
Joined by chefs Sandro di Marino, Luke Randall and sommelier Ennio Di Marco, Maiale has designed a dining format based around informal, communal dining; a menu that caters to a full-blown sit-down spread or a glass of wine and a nibble.
Wine on tap, a concept that is big in Italy and growing in the US, is an interesting feature with eight varieties — six Italian, two Australian — that vary from week to week and average at about $9 per glass.
We pull up some stools at the window (there are day-glo bucket chairs and laminex tables on the floor also) and grab a couple of sangioveses with a starter of meatballs ($4 each) and slow-cooked lamb pressed into fingers and served with a cucumber yoghurt (also $4).
A section titled “raw” includes oysters done super simple with just fresh lemon ($3.50 each) as well as a beef tartare stracciatella ($16).
The standout, however, is the scampi gin granita ($21) — a whole giant scampi halved and topped with refreshing cucumber and gin ice; it’s the perfect combo — booze and raw seafood — and is already, apparently, a house favourite.
Another early fave is the house risotto made differently every day and served at around 7pm.
Tonight it is the ham hock served with chopped flat-leaf parsley and fresh peas ($22); a big serving — great to share — which strikes the perfect level of saltiness, especially with a generous shaving of fresh parmigiano reggiano on the top.
Meat dishes include a whole roasted chicken (cooked under a besser block, naturally), which comes by the half and whole, but we try the slow-cooked osso bucco ($27) that falls away like tissue paper and comes without any bells and whistles.
Just a coating of rich tomato gravy and a fork. There’s also a swathe of simple vego sides (greens, potatoes, corn etc).
Desserts include chocolate eclairs and “mum’s birthday sponge” — it really does hark back to a time when three generations enjoying a meal was de rigeur … before the iPhone ruined everything.
Thankfully at Besser they’re not prepared to let the tradition slide by so easily.