Local knowledge can make all the difference. Talk to most Perth residents about places to dine on the Margaret River main strip, and you'll get the same standard answers - Morries, Muster Bar and Grill and Settlers Tavern will be the mainstay answers, while those keeping up with more recent openings will probably recommend Swings Taphouse (which replaced the much loved Wino's) and Miki's Open Kitchen in Margaret River. When planning our 2015 trip through the South West, I wanted to try out places that are perhaps a little less well known, and our friends in Margaret River thoroughly recommended a place they frequent called La Scarpetta, an Italian Trattoria located on the north end of the main strip run by Italian trained Italian chefs, with a strong focus on the food of Sardinia.
Joining us for our dinner were our Margaret River friends Nadia and Cam Haskell. Nadia is a chocolatier and Cam is a winemaker, so as you can imagine that have discerning palates, and are serious foodies who share our love of culinary tourism. They both lived in Italy a few years ago, so when they recommend an Italian restaurant as being authentic and delicious, I definitely take notice.
Located in the historic, heritage listed Higgins Coach Staging House, the vibe is charmingly casual, unpretentious and welcoming - typical of the trattoria style, and befitting a place that was once a residence.
For a casual restaurant, La Scarpetta's wine list is incredible even by Margaret River standards. On top of a strong Margaret River-heavy Australian wine list, they also feature an excellent selection of Italian wines, including a good selection of Nebbiolo, Chianti and - given the Sardinian focus of the menu - a plethora of Sardinian wine. Given Cam's better knowledge of Italian wine varietals, Alissa and I were happy to leave it to him to choose our wine for the evening. The 2010 Rocca Rubia Reserve Carignano he selected proved an excellent and enlightening choice given that we've never tried a wine made from the Carignan varietal before.
We decided to share two entrees between the four of us, with the first being Tagliere di Salumi e Formaggio - Italian Prosciutto, Salame Calabrese, Coppa Salumi, Mozzarella Bocconcini, Provolone and House Made Marinated Olives served with Bread. As always, as much as I love a good plate of cold cuts, its hard to really judge it as anything other than a sourcing job most of the time. From this perspective it was pretty good - all the cold cuts were well selected, good quality and thinly sliced, and I appreciated that the bocconcini was well drained and didn't leave a puddle on the plate. The House Made Olives were good, and I appreciated having both crisps and breads for a bit of textural variety as well as rocket for a bit of vegetable freshness.
Our second, smaller entree was Sardine in Agliata - Pan fried breaded sardines with a spicy chilli, garlic and vinegar reduction. These were really good, nicely crumbed and fried with the fish meat having good texture and lacking that excessively dryness I've found in bad sardine dishes. The Chilli, Garlic and Vinegar Reduction was incredible, with an intensely umami flavour that made it taste like one of the best, most rich tomato sauces you've ever tasted.
From there we moved onto our mains, with Alissa and I sharing our two dishes. Alissa's choice of Tortelli ai Funghi - fresh home made pasta parcels with mushroom and ricotta tossed in butter and sage - was really simple but fantastic. It didn't need much, as the combo of beautiful earthy mushrooms inside perfectly cooked al dente pasta (and I mean proper, right on the money al dente) coated in buttery, salty sage sauce was such a delight to eat that only a shaving of black truffles on top would have elevated this to greater heights of deliciousness.
Our other dish was Zampone - Slow boiled Pigs trotter stuffed with Italian sausage and pancetta, served on a bed of lentils. Good god; this was a truly incredible dish of triple porcine deliciousness. It is something I've seen many times in Italian (and some French) cookbooks, but this old school classic is far less commonly seen on actual menus than the similar dish of Cotechino di Modena, so it was immediately a pleasure just to be able to order it at all!
Even more impressive was the execution, with the sausage and pancetta filling being as delicious as that combination sounds, while the soft gelatinous texture of the trotter was an absolute treat - especially the chicken feet-like quality of the toes that Alissa and I relished. The lentils too were well cooked and seasoned; I find lentils can be quite bland and one dimensional, howeverthese were very tasty indeed. This was better than the Cotechino and Lentils dish we ate at Cutler & Co - and if you know how good Cutler & Co are, then you know why this is a must try dish.
Alissa and I also got to try Nadia and Cam's dishes. Nadia's choice of Trippa al Pomodoro - Tripe cooked in tomato sauce with parmesan cheese, served with a homemade pasta crust - may have seemed controversial if it wasn't for the fact Alissa and I were already tripe converts thanks to our love of Satay Perut. The tripe in this dish was so tender and the acidity and umami-rich tomato sauce so flavoursome, I can imagine this being a dish that could make a believer out of someone a bit squeamish about eating offal.
A very regional Sardinian dish, Gnocchetti Sardi al Ragu di Capra - Organic semolina pasta in a slow cooked Ragu of Goat tenderloin, white wine, cherry tomato olives and capers - was Cam's main. As with the Toretelli, the pasta was perfectly al dente, while the flavour of goat was decidedly richer than the average ragu you see in most Italian restaurants - and I mean that in a good way.
For dessert, Alissa ordered the Sardinian specialty of Seadas - a traditional dessert of sweet pastry filled with Pecorino cheese, deep fried and smothered in honey. This was quite an intense dessert, and I can imagine the savoury quality of the cheese combined with the sweetness being a bit too much for a lot of people. Alissa did indeed think it was quite an intense and heavy dessert, and was glad it was a small serve. She however loved the saltiness of the cheese combined with the perfectly crispy sweet pastry and the sweetness of the honey. As good as it was, Alissa did feel a bit of dessert envy seeing my somewhat more orthodox dessert, however we both agreed that it was nice to see such an extremely regional Italian dish being served in regional Australia of all places.
My dessert of Café Grande Gelato con Abbamele - Coffee flavored gelato with Chocolate coated Almonds and a cooked Honey and Pollen Syrup - was, as Cam put it, glorified ice cream and sauce, but that simple description does not do justice to how delicious this was. The Coffee Gelato had a good, strong coffee flavour with the right amount of bitterness to balance out the sweetness, while bits of chocolate coated almonds buried within were nice crunchy surprises. With tasty honey drizzled on top, this set the standard for what a simple dessert should be.
The Verdict: Excellent +
As we were walking in, Cam seemed a bit worried that he'd overhyped La Scarpetta a bit; its laid back trattoria style is definitely not fine dining, and I think he was concerned we would have more lofty expectations. He needn't have worried - this was one of the best Italian meals I've had in Australia regardless of the formality level, and I can see why he and Nadia and regulars. Indeed, Alissa and I enjoyed this meal as much as the more formal (and significantly more expensive) Italian food we ate at the 3 Michelin Starred Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong, and if La Scarpetta had been open for lunch we would have definitely popped in for a return visit the next day. With excellent service from the passionate staff and owners, this was a really lovely surprise and a restaurant we are happy to thoroughly recommend.