After our dastardly dining experience at an Italian Restaurant in Mittagong I was desperately yearning for some authentic Italian food that would give me that feeling of being transported to the very heart of Italy for a moment of time I would forever remember.
By an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, I was invited to dine at Balla, owned by Stefano Manfredi who has been successfully running Italian restaurants in Sydney like Restaurant Manfredi and Bel Mondo since 1983. Balla opened at the end of 2011 and is his latest offering with Tuscan-born Gabriele Taddeucci as head chef.
The restaurant is one of several fine dining offerings at The Star which is centrally located in Pyrmont. Balla has been purpose-built and Gabriele has been involved since the space was just an empty shell. It has been designed to reflect the Futuristic Italian artists of the 1920’s and so the design is minimalist while also being rustic.
Surrounded by shops like Rolex, Chanel and Gucci, the entrance to Balla is impressive with your eyes moving almost immediately to the open-plan kitchen. At 7pm on a Tuesday night it’s already in full-swing with chefs going about their business quickly and quietly with no Gordon Ramsay-styled outbursts. Flames are leaping from the wood-fired oven and we walk past a display of market-fresh fish sitting on ice and there is no fishy smell.
Gabriele comes over to greet us and in our few minutes of conversation I discover he knows Celia and he speaks of her fondly. I tell him to watch out for her because she’s quite the cougar.
Well dressed staff in clean pressed uniforms greet us with a smile and Luca, the head waiter shows us to our table. The dining section of the restaurant is a semi-circle with the exterior wall being floor to ceiling glass that are actually windows that pivot like an arm so on a warm night these can be opened to allow the outside in. We sit looking out at a water view with the harbour bridge in the distance although actually, on this night there’s yet another downpour so the view’s a bit drowned out. I can see a private dining room at one end of the restaurant and nearby are some retro movie lights that look like they’ve come from the set of a Fellini film.
The tables are well spaced so you don’t have to tuck your elbows in nor do you have to listen in to anyone else’s conversation. The restaurant is packed and despite the timber floors and glass walls and the open kitchen there’s no issue with noise. I don’t have to shout at Carl for him to hear me which makes for a more restful dining experience.
Luca brings over an i-pad and these are given to all diners and this is how you select your wine. The award-winning sommelier has put together a very comprehensive wine list with over 380 wines and around 80% of them come from Italy. The price for a bottle of wine starts at about $50 with the average price being around $70.00.
Luca explains to us that Balla is doing a regional series and we were there for the launch of cuisine from Umbria. Umbria is a landlocked region just north of Rome and is famous for its black truffles and lentils from Castelluccio. For the next four weeks you can order the Umbria menu which is four courses for $95 or $125 with matching wines. We handed back the i-pad and decided to have the Umbria experience of 4 courses with the matching wines.
Complimentary bread is brought to our table with a dish of Italian olive oil. All the bread at Balla is made in-house. Gabriele is a coeliac which would seem quite a curse for an Italian but Gabriele does not miss out because he has put hours and hours into developing gluten-free bread that behaves and tastes just like Italian bread. I had the GF bread that was lightly toasted and it had a decent crust, wasn’t cakey or moist and had a decent crumb. I should have asked if I could buy a few loaves on my way out.
The first course was Norcineria (I believe that roughly translates as ‘butcher’) and this was a selection of Umbria-style meats. On the plate was a goat’s prosciutto, pancetta and parma ham. The goat’s prosciutto has a distinctive smell and I found it very unusual but for Carl, this was his most favourite thing on the plate and he even grabbed some of mine. The pancetta was flat rather than round and was my favourite of the selection. The parma ham was also enjoyable and went well with the truffle grissini and I found myself wishing for more.
The primo course was served with a 2008 Tokay Russolo Jacot that I had certainly not heard of before, in fact, I do have to let you know that I’m no expert when it comes to Italian wines. (I’m actually only expert at drinking wine). I like the matching wine experience as it’s far better to let an expert choose for you.
The next primo course was Umbrichelli al tartufo or large spaghetti with fresh black truffle. I ordered Gabriele’s GF pasta. I absolutely had to try it as he spent the best part of a year coming up with a GF pasta that doesn’t fall apart and behaves like a wheat pasta in terms of texture and flavour. The GF pasta was cassarecce and it came out with a sauce that was made from a truffle butter and parmesan with shaved truffles on top. The truffles come from the Southern Highlands in NSW and Gabriele had been out there to source them himself. The pasta dish was incredible and I will be going back to experience it again. Carl and I left nothing on our plates.
The wine was a 2010 Ferentano Falesco that is made from the rescetto variety which is very similar to Chardonnay. The wine was super-intense and cut through the richness of the truffle butter sauce perfectly.
The secondo was Catechino con lenticchie e tartufo or traditional poached pork sausage with lentils. I asked Gabriele if he made the sausage and he told me they were bought from Pino’s Dolce Vita in Kogarah, a family business with over seven generations experience in making quality Italian small goods. However, just a few days ago Gabriele and his team went to Pino’s and took over the kitchen making over 100kgs of pork sausages they will be serving at Balla in a few months time.
The secondo was served with a 2009 Falesco Trentanni that was 60% Merlot and 40% Sangiovese. It is a wine made in Umbria whereas the other matching wines came from regions close to Umbria. It was a lovely wine to enjoy with the pork sausage and lentils.
The Dolce was a Pangiallo. A traditional dessert from Umbria that is really peasant food from a time when a lot of items were unavailable and people had to make something with limited ingredients. So this flan has no flour or eggs or dairy products like butter or cream – it’s one for the dairy free, gluten free and the vegans!
Gabriele was almost apologetic when describing this dish to us in that he felt it almost didn’t come up to the standard of the truffle pasta and pork sausage however this dessert is beautifully presented and comes with a scoop of homemade licorice ice cream. There is some aniseed liqueur in the flan and I’m a big fan of aniseed and licorice so this dessert was loved by me. It had wonderful texture and flavours and the good thing is, when you dine at Balla you get to take the menu home with you and featured on the Umbria menu is the recipe for the cornmeal, fruit and nut flan. I’ll be making it and sharing the recipe with you.
The flan was served with a 2011 L’Armangia Moscato d’Asti. It comes from the northern region of Italy near Switzerland where the land is steep so the grapes are grown on terraced hillsides. This causes the grapes to get a lot more sunshine leading to a higher sugar content in the grapes and therefore a sweeter wine. I loved this slightly sparkling wine. It was fruity like sparkling grape juice. Carl wasn’t as keen on it but that’s just because Carl thinks red wine goes with everything.
After our four courses Gabriele took a break from the kitchen and came to join us. Italians are known for being passionate but Gabriele is so extremely passionate about what he does that it’s totally infectious. He talked about using ancient grains in his cooking as nobody appears to be allergic or sensitive to them. He talked about using free-range ingredients at all times even though they do come at a slightly higher cost. He talked about how he has sourced the first organic oysters in the world and how they are grown in a chemical-free environment in Smokey Bay, South Australia. He talked about how all the butter is hand-churned, how long it took him to develop a GF pasta that doesn’t fall apart or have poor texture, the process of developing GF bread and how he doesn’t buy any farmed fish. And how, above all else, he wants his patrons to have an authentic Italian dining experience where the menu will surprise and delight them and the cuisine will be no different from dining in an authentic restaurant in Italy.
Presently, my sister is holidaying in Rome. She has been sending me emails of all the dining experiences she is having and having friends ‘in the know’ she is dining at the best of the best. It has been my great pleasure to email back and say, ‘Here in Sydney we’re not doing too badly either’. Because this has to have been my best Italian dining experience, ever.
I’m scratching to find something negative to say. The only thing I can think of is, if it had been just a couple of degrees warmer, I would have been able to remove my cardigan and show off my pretty sheer-pink shirt.
Verdict: Hallelujah; there is innovative, authentic Italian here in Sydney.
Balla: Level G, Harbourside, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont. Ph: 02 9657 9129
Lunch: Tue-Fri 12pm-2:30pm
Dinner: Mon-Fri 5:30pm-9:30pm
Hotly Spiced dined as a guest of Balla.
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