Ilpasto is one such restaurant. Technically in the suburb of Inglewood near the corner of Beaufort and Ninth, this Italian Trattoria has turned a site that has seen a few restaurants come and go over the years into a thriving and successful business - so much so that a second Ilpasto is opening in Mt. Hawthorne sometime in May.
The restaurant was recommended to us by our friend (and former Ilpasto employee) Kat Osborne, an award winning theatre director who worked with Alissa in the theatre company the Duck House before moving on to co-found the new company The Last Great Hunt. It was fitting then that our meal was in the company of Kat and her husband Jamie Breen (talented designer/photographer and EPW wrestler(!)) fellow Last Great Hunter writer/actor Gita Bezard and her partner Adam Mitchell (also an award-winning director).
We decided to share two entrees, with the first being the fairly exhaustive many-entrees-in-one Antipasto Platter, consisting of Sicilian olives, pork sausages, crumbed artichoke hearts, goats feta, smoked salmon, d’Argental Lingot cheese, roast mushroom, peperonata and baby calamari served with crostini and olive oil. Its hard to tell how much of this would have been a source-and-assembly job and how much of it was made in house, but everything on the plate was uniformly excellent and varied. The cheese, smoked salmon, caperberries, olive and the sausage were about what I would expect for a place of this calibre and reputation, however the elements that were most definitely made in house were probably the best - the baby calamari pieces were lovely and tender, and the crumbed artichoke hearts reminded me of a). how good fried food is and b). how unique and delicious artichokes are.
As a second Entree, we went with one of their specials - a Radicchio and Zucchini Salad. This was a fairly simple salad done well, with the nice soft texture of zucchini combining nicely with the spicy bitterness of the radicchio and the olive oil.
The house bread was nice slices of New Norcia Campaillou loaf. As is to be expected from New Norcia bread, this was quality. This was nice, soft and crusty, though I still contend the best Italian bread selection I've had is at Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong.
For mains, Kat and I both ordered the Spaghetti Pesto and Lobter Tails - spaghetti tossed with basil, garlic and slipper lobster tails. I'm something of a pesto fanatic and have fairly high expectations when it comes to the King of Pasta Sauces. Ilpasto's version followed the classic Genovese style of basil and garlic, though sans parmesan or pecorino. My first mouthful was without parmesan added, and it was well balanced in terms of ratios of pepper, salt, garlic, basil and oil, however it didn't have that umami punch that a generous sprinkling of parmesan brings to the proceedings. I added some parmesan to mine and found that it really gave that missing element to the dish, and I enjoyed it immensely. Kat and Gita pointed out that the lack of parmesan was probably intentional considering the addition of the lobster tails to the dish, as a more delicate flavour allowed the flavour of the lobster tails to 'sing'. I always see meat added to a pesto as a bit unnecessary however the lobster tails were lovely; being perfectly cooked and tasting very fresh.
Alissa and Jamie went with the Risotto of the Day, which was Italian Sausage, Leek and Goats Cheese. Alissa's immediate comment was that it was very delicious, with the creaminess/cheesiness of the goats cheese and the acidity of the leek balancing out nicely - an assessment I would concur with. Alissa went on to add that the Italian sausage was her favourite part. The sausage gave the dish body, textural difference and porky goodness. I'm always a bit iffy about risotto since it can be a gluggy, overly cheesy mess but this was seriously good.
Adam ordered the Paccheri, Zucchini e Frutti di Mare; large tubular pasta tossed through finely chopped slipper lobster tail meat, tiger prawns and crab, zucchini, extra virgin olive oil and cherry tomato topped with fresh herbs. Adam's immediate comment was that when he orders seafood in a dish he wants to be able to see the seafood; 'you don't know if you're getting seafood extender' when its cut up into pieces. This is a fair comment, and I think it actually does wonders for presentation when seafood is served whole - I remember ordering an excellent risotto at Bistro Vue in Melbourne in my pre-blog days that looked absolutely stunning, mainly due to the two Moreton Bay Bugs sitting on top. Presentation aside, the dish was a success tastewise; Adam described the flavours as 'beautiful', with the pasta cooked to a perfect al dente.
Oh dear. Gita's dish arrived last and since we'd already started eating I was too distracted by deliciousness to notice I forgot to photograph her dish - Gnocchi with Italian tomato and basil sauce topped with herbs, and without the Grana Padano given Gita's dietary requirements as a vegan. Gita described the dish as being 'simple but lovely' and 'el rustico'. It was about what she expected for the dish, and having tried it I would concur. 'Nothing to write home about' Gita said, jokingly adding, 'Believe me; I do write home about all my good meals. This one... I'll just email'. I think with the Grana Padano, this dish would have been a lot tastier given Grana Padano is pretty delicious, and the Gnocchi in itself had a lovely, smooth texture. However, I think this goes to the heart of a problem with menus planned by restaurants that are not strictly aimed at a vegan market - the vegan options ended up being a bit, well, boring. Its not Ilpasto's fault of course, but I think there is a challenge here for restaurants across the board to rise to in coming up with inventive dishes for people with dietary restrictions, as it certainly can be done beyond simply taking cheese out of the dish.
After a breather, we decided to share three desserts between four of us, with Gita and Jamie abstaining from this course.
First up, the Vanilla, Orange & Saffron Crème Brûlée. The flavours were well balanced with the orange flavour not overpowering the vanilla, resulting in a dish that was quite light and delicate. The texture was wonderfully smooth, which provided a good contrast to the cookie served on the side. A seeming afterthought, the cookie was almost a show stealer, having a lovely gingery spiciness, and a super crunchy texture that was very appealing. I'm a sucker for a good cookie, and this was seriously impressive.
The Dessert Special was a Coffee, Hazelnut & Chocolate cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, though since I forgot to take down the details I can't quite remember what style of cake this was (a torte?). Whatever the style, it was another totally impressive dessert. I'm not usually a big fan of cake because I can't stand it when its dry, but this was baked perfectly - nice and moist in the inside, with a crispy outer crust. This is how cake should be baked, and showed the great skill of their dessert chef. Flavourwise, it was all intense flavours of coffee, hazelnut and chocolate, however these flavours were in such perfect harmony they complemented and elevated each other to be greater than the sum of their parts. This dish was the perfect example of what I love about Italian food - its often presented in a way this is not overly flashy, but it tastes so, so good it really doesn't matter.
Finally, The Sicilian Cassata. Kat was a little hesitant about ordering this dessert as she does not usually like Cassata, but she really liked Ilpasto's version. The ice cream was really well made, with all four of us commenting on how great the airy texture of the vanilla layer contrasted with the fudginess of the dark chocolate in the middle. Commercial supermarket Cassata can be diabetes-inducing sweet; this was thankfully more balanced in its sugar content, allowing the flavours to shine through. Kat and I both don't like glazed cherries for this overly sweet reason, and the fact that they had far less glazed cherry that normal made for a better, more refined balance. In fact, looking at the dessert in hindsight, I'm wondering if they used glace apricots as well as cherries - a variation that I have always found to be superior to the more common cherry version. Whatever the case, it was a wonderful dish. Adam called it as dessert of the night and I would wholeheartedly agree.
The Verdict: Excellent
Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Ilpasto. The pasta serving sizes were enormous and well made, providing ample amounts of authentic flavour, quality and quantity - though Adam and Gita had fair, constructive criticism of their respective dishes. As impressive as the pasta was though, the desserts really knocked it out of the park with the Cassata being quite possibly the best I've had. The desserts we so good, I would go as far as to contend they were better than the desserts we had at the 3-Michelin starred Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong. With the new store opening in a few months at time of writing, it won't be long before our next Ilpasto meal.