In spite of (or perhaps because of) Fremantle's Cappuccino Strip's long association with Italian food and culture, its surprising how hard it is to find an impressive Italian restaurant in the Port City. Being an Eat Street that predated Perth's recent leap forward in terms of food quality and authenticity, The Cappuccino Strip has fallen victim to the very thing that made it a success in the first place - its relative safeness and catering for Australian tastes may have made the street, but with increasingly discerning and demanding tastes the term 'Fremantle Italian' is often said with an underlying tone of derision.
Having recently enjoyed some excellent meals in Fremantle at The Modern Eatery and The Raw Kitchen, I became increasingly curious to find out if there actually was an Italian restaurant along the main strip worth trying out. Consulting the Index of the 2015 Good Food Guide, I was surprised to find in this year's guide that a Fremantle Cappuccino Strip restaurant actually made the cut - La Sosta. With some expensive dinners planned for our July trip to Sydney, Alissa and I decided to forego what would have been my birthday degustation in May, and instead made a reservation at La Sosta for a decidedly more low key celebration.
From the outside and within, La Sosta has little to distinquish it from other Italian restaurants along the main strip with simple but effective Trattoria decor...
...although the patterned tiles and wood panelling that lined the room adjacent to the entrance gave the restaurant some character.
Alissa and I decided to share two entrees between us. The first dish we sampled was the Crocchette di Baccala' e Patate (Baccala' and Potato Croquettes). Being a dish that was introduced to me by Alissa's family, Alissa and I are big fans of croquettes of all styles, and we thoroughly enjoyed these well made examples. The Croquettes had a lovely, creamy texture with the strong flavour of the Baccala' well balanced out by the Potatoes. With a nice crispy exterior and a tasty Eggplant Puree for extra smoky flavour, this was an excellent entree. and the accompanying bread - with its crustiness exterior and soft, fluffy interior - was a welcome addition.
Our other entree was Tagliere La Sosta - Prosciutto di Parma, Pancetta, Pecorino, 'Chef Surprise' and Toasted Bread. As always with dishes that are in essence a simple plate of bread, meat and cheese, its hard to judge the dish as cooking by the restaurant per se, and thus I tend to looking at it more from the perspective of sourcing and preparation. By this measure the Tagliere La Sosta was an excellent dish. The same bread from the other entree made a welcome return appearance, and the Pecorino and the the egg-lilke Baked Ricotta were very good too. The best components on the plate however were the Pancetta and Prosciutto, with the latter being particularly soft, tender and juicy - some of the best I've had in Australia.
For my main, I could not go past the Lasagnole Gamberi e Pesto di Pistacchio - Garlic Prawns with Butter, Pistachio Pesto and Chopped Tomatoes. Something of a restaurant signature dish, the Lasagnole has been talked up by everyone from tourists on Trip Advisor, other bloggers and even Rob Broadfield himself, and I'm happy to say it lived up to its expectations. The plating may have looked a bit ugly and authentically rustico, however what it lacked in visual wow factor it more than made up for in terms of flavour. The large squares of house made pasta were perfectly cooked al dente, and had a nice silky texture. With its use of tomato, the pesto reminded me a bit of Trapanese-style pesto, however it was even better due to the use of Pistachio instead of Almonds. The tomato help balance out the layering of unctuous richness that came from the use of Butter, Olive Oil and Pistachio - a trio that could have been all a bit too much in lesser hands. Finally, I don't always find adding meat to a Pesto entirely convincing or necessary, however I felt the perfectly cooked prawns were a nice worthy addition. I would be more than happy return to La Sosta on the strength of this dish alone.
Alissa went with the Pappardelle al Ragu d'Agnello, Tartufo e Piselli as her main, since the idea of a Lamb Ragu and Black Truffles sounded like an awesome combination. This was a really good, hearty ragu-based pasta dish, with the lamb being incredibly fall apart, and filled with the kind intensity of flavour that comes from being cooked low and slow. The pasta itself was just as good as the Lasagnole, and we liked the super rustic hand cut shape of the ribbons. The Split Peas gave the dish some nice additional texture, however we both agreed that we did not quite taste the Black Truffle in the dish. Perhaps it had been seriously overpowered by everything else, but it was a bit disappointing to not get any discernable Truffle Flavour - especially when you consider Alissa had chosen the dish based on the promise of Black Gold. Still, this was a really impressive Ragu, and if they hadn't mentioned Tartufo, we would have been very impressed.
For dessert, Alissa decided to go with something classic - a Tiramisu. Upon arrival, the first thing we noted was how rustic it was - refreshingly so, when you consider how Tiramisu is a dish so often deconstructed and reimagined that I'm more likely to picture a glass of coffee flavoured trifle when I think of a Tiramisu these days. As much as I love modernist reinvention, I love to see a classic honed and done right, and this proved to be a real, serious and adult Tiramisu. Too often a Tiramisu is cloyingly sweet, however the coffee-soaked cake and coffee cream had a nice bitter kick, and with sugar levels well in check for the perfect balance. The coffee was refreshingly real coffee, and the mascarpone had a slight sourness to it that gave it even more complexity. It may have looked very ordinary on the plate, but it was a good argument for why this dish is a classic.
I went with the Sbrisolona as my dessert - a traditional Northern Italian cake made from Almond and Cornmeal. Having grown up with Sugee Cake (a classic Singaporean dessert often served at weddings), I loved the cake's gritty texture, and as a cookie fanatic I loved the crunchiness and the chunks of toasty almonds. Again, this dessert was not overly sweet - even with the dusting of icing sugar on top. If I was not concerned about not being able to sleep after, I would have loved to have had a shot of espresso or an Affogatto to accompany this cake, and I think that nice bitterness would have brought this to the next level. Its something I'd like to do if I ordered the dish again, and would recommend it for those who are unaffected by the awakening qualities of caffeine.
The Verdict: Excellent
After our excellent experiences at The Modern Eatery and The Raw Kitchen, La Sosta was our third impressive meal in Fremantle in a row, and it fills me with hope for the recovery of a city that was seemingly on a knife's edge not so long ago. All our dishes were excellent, however the signature dish of Lasagnole Gamberi e Pesto di Pistacchio and the very classic Tiramisu were particularly worthy of praise, and would be our picks for must order dishes. The small but well considered wine list was highly suitable for the style and genre of cooking, and the service very warm and friendly. La Sosta had all the things I would want from a mid-level restaurant, and was one of the better Italian trattoria-style meals I had in Western Australia - although I would still rate La Scarpetta in Margaret River as being the benchmark in this category. Next time someone speaks derisively about Fremantle Italian, I'm glad we have La Sosta as a great counter-example.