A simple seafood pasta dish from Franco Franco. Image: Franco Franco
Italian food in Australia is heading back to its roots with chefs focusing on simple, authentic dishes that highlight their heritage.
Cheesy garlic bread, pastas swimming in rich, creamy sauces and ham and pineapple pizzas - these are some of the 'Italian' dishes many Australians know and love, but a new (or should I say old?) approach to the cuisine is emerging and proving popular in Italian eateries across the country.
Chefs and restaurateurs eager to showcase all that their country of origin has to offer are choosing to serve up simple dishes that contain as little as three ingredients, and they pride themselves on using only the finest produce.
This is the premise behind Franco Franco, a new Italian restaurant situated in the heart of Sydney's Surry Hills.
"We focus on the simplicity of the food itself - we do traditional Italian food where we cook like our families in Italy, and we use the best produce we can get in Australia," says head chef, Francesco Armillis.
"My vegetable suppliers call me from the markets everyday and tell me what their best vegetables are. They might recommend the artichokes, and then I will use them in my specials."
In keeping in-line with his simple approach to food, Armillis' dishes contain very few ingredients.
"We use only three or four ingredients in our dishes, and sometimes we use two. We do a lamb dish for example - it is the main ingredient and then we combine it with another two ingredients - sage and rosemary - and don't really mix it up."
Prosciutto pizza from Franco Franco. Image: Franco Franco
Marketing manager Mona Ibrahim says the main ingredient is the hero of the dish. "It's about accentuating the product through other little ingredients, but it's not about reinventing the wheel and being so innovative that you actually lose the spirit and true taste of the main ingredient."
Ibrahim says Franco Franco's pizza makers have over 15 years of experience, and they were brought over from Napoli to make truly authentic pizzas.
"The menu is based on the very, very traditional pizza that you would find in Napoli. There are not a lot of ingredients on the pizzas and the dough is soft, not rock hard and crusty," she says.
"You won't find things like chicken or pineapple on our pizzas - we find that is absolutely absurd and it's not what we define as authentic Italian pizza."
Armillis explains each region of Italy has its own food culture, which means authentic Italian cuisine is much more than just pizza and pasta.
"Italy is very small but we have 22 regions. I come from Napoli, which is near the sea so we eat more seafood. Our approach to food is very different to the Italians from Tuscany, for example, who are more meat orientated.
"That is the fantastic part of it - people start to find the really authentic Italian when they focus on regional dishes - they will be amazed by how many dishes there are that they have never heard of," he adds.
Franco Franco's Polpette Di Ricotta. Image: Franco Franco
Ibrahim says guests are pleased with the new dining experience, and there are plans to expand the concept throughout Australia.
"We have found our customers love the change, they are so sick of the spaghetti and risottos you find in many copy-paste Italian restaurants.
"We realise customers need to have access to authentic Italian food that transports them to Italy and into a traditional family home without leaving the country," she explains.
Industry veteran Tony Percuoco knows how important it is to evolve with the times, and has subsequently changed his whole concept of dining at Brisbane-based Italian restaurant Tartufo.
"I still have my entrees, mains and desserts, but I have had to bring in appetisers as a lot of people were just coming in and having a main course and maybe a dessert - entrees were not getting sold.
"To get that cash flow I introduced a full page of appetisers, we already had them on the bar menu so I thought 'Let's bring them over to the restaurant,'" he says.
Contemporary diners are more conscious of what they are eating, and Percuoco strives to cater to customers with special dietary requirements.
Chefs at work in the Tartufo kitchen. Image: Tartufo
"We introduced a vegetarian degustation which has gone through the roof, and we have an incredible amount of gluten-free food now. The minute I put the GF symbol on the menu it was ridiculous, it was like wildfire," he says.
Despite running his own businesses for 30 years, Percuoco has never included pizza on the menu until now - another move to increase cash flow.
"I have just purchased an oven from Naples and I am sponsoring my cousin to come out from Italy specifically to make the pizzas," he says.
"I am doing the true Napolitano pizzas, and while I have limited myself to a certain market because not everybody will like them, at least I am doing what I know is true."
Percuoco is out to change Tartufo's reputation as a fine dining restaurant, and has transformed it into somewhat of a formal-casual hybrid.
"The restaurant is big enough to do one side of a la carte and the other side pizzas, snacks and share plates - there is a full-blown trend towards that style of dining in Australia at the moment.
"I don't blame the public for wanting a more casual style of dining. We are all working long hours and sometimes we need to just get in, socialise, have a great glass of wine, a good meal and that's it. That 15 course degustation is out, nobody wants it anymore," he says.
Divido specialises in regional Italian cuisine. Image: Divido
While change is on the menu at Tartufo, Percuoco explains one thing will stay the same - his approach to Italian food.
"I do normal, everyday Italian food and I don't just put things on my menu for the sake of it - I very much look at what the season is.
"With our food you can taste each and every one of the ingredients. I am doing a particular dish at the moment which is simply pasta with prawns, calamari, zucchini, a touch of chilli, extra virgin olive oil and a little bit of garlic - we cannot keep enough of it, it is so plain and beautiful."
Authentic Italian can also be found on the country's west coast thanks to restaurants such as Divido, which specialises in regional, peasant-style cuisine.
The restaurant has a fairly simple philosophy, one that co-owner and executive chef, Jason Jujnovich, says has remained the same since it opened in 2005.
"We have a rustic sort of style, we are not too refined in the way we put things on the plate and we keep it simple. You won't find any creamy sauces in our place.
"I try to stay away from mainstream Italian food, or from what some people might perceive Italian food to be. People will often ring up and say 'Do you have spaghetti bolognese, or do you have lasagne?' and I have to tell them 'Look, we are not that type of place,'" he adds.
A handmade pasta dish from Divido. Image: Divido
Instead, Divido serves up authentic versions of these dishes, such as a mushroom and cauliflower lasagne with crème fraiche, radicchio and hazelnuts and a hand-cut tagliatelle pasta, which is accompanied by blue swimmer crab meat and vermouth sauce.
"We do dishes that, if you did go to Italy, you would be likely to come across.
"For example, Italians are known for their wood-roasted meats and fish in certain areas, so we do a lovely wood roasted duck which is served with buckwheat polenta, mustard fruits and a porcini jus. That has been on ever since the day that we opened. It's one of biggest sellers," says Jujnovich.
"We also have the shallow fried calamari, which is real comfort food, with aioli and an agrodolce salad, and handmade pastas - always handmade pastas."
Jujnovich has definitely noticed dining in Australia is more casual than it once was, which suits him just fine.
"Customers like the ambience of the restaurant to be a bit more casual now, which [works] in our favour because we're not trying to be too stiff or conservative.
"We like it to be a little bit more laid-back and casual, with friendly wait staff that are happy to talk with customers and have a bit of a chit chat," he explains.
Jujnovich is passionate about his produce and believes it is important that chefs develop strong working relationships with their suppliers.
"It is all about finding the right supplier. We have been using Brooklea Quail, a great little local quail producer, from day dot and we work with a few little boutique suppliers such as Artisan Foods.
"We source ingredients from all over, whether it be local Australian olive oil from Pemberton or our cheeses and vinegars, which we source from Italy."
Jujnovich continuously updates Divido's menu, and it doesn't necessarily change with the seasons. "Rather than change the whole thing at once we might change three dishes here, two dishes there, and then four dishes after that.
"It's all dependent on what's popular, what's not popular and what's going out of season - there are so many factors to consider."