There’s a big difference between a home-cooked meal and one eaten at a restaurant or even purchased from a providore or gastropub.
I’ve had my fair share of fine dining experiences – I’ve spent hours grazing through degustation menus, sampled forms of edible art and molecular gastronomy, and devoured some stellar dishes crafted by some of the country’s top chefs – and paid top dollar.
Extensive travels across some of the world’s food meccas, including a recent 12-month jaunt eating my way around Europe, have also aided in my overall gastronomic education and my taste buds have become well versed in the ways of contemporary cuisine and culinary trickery.
Still, there’s something special about home-cooking.
Family recipes that survive for generations offer a unique comfort in their familiarity, warmth and power to recall intimate memories, shared and cherished.
My Nonna (yes, I’m Italian, which automatically gives me extra food cred, right?) still makes the best gnocci I’ve ever tasted.
Those soft, billowy potato puffs are like clouds on a plate, melting away as soon as a forkful reaches my mouth.
Together with her rich, veal and pork ragu and topped with a light sprinkle of parmesan cheese, this dish reigns over all others.
Maybe it’s the way she carefully rolls each of the gnocci in her hands, or the brand of tinned tomatoes in her sauce, or the Italian grocer she’s been visiting for the past 30 years to buy her cheese, which, by the way, is grana padano, not parmigiano reggiano – trust me, there’s a difference.
Luckily, chef Antonio Ruggerino of Sydney’s Verde Restaurant and Bar knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Ruggerino hails from a small village in Calabria, in southern Italy, and since opening the restaurant in 2007, he’s worked tirelessly to restore and recreate his own family’s culinary traditions, injecting a touch of the dolce vita into East Sydney’s Stanley Street.
Ruggerino’s menu is homely yet sophisticated with a gentle mix of classic and contemporary flavours, and dishes are presented with equal parts of pride and love.
Browsing through the menu, I get a definite sense of familiarity when I spot dishes like potato and parsley fritters, papadelle with braised lamb, spatchcock with roasted eggplant and, of course, a crumbed veal cotoletta (a southern Italian version of Viennese schnitzel).
Ruggerino focuses on traditional antipasti that are served both hot and cold, while pasta dishes are generous and mains of meat and fish are served alongside zesty salads.
There’s also an impressive list of sweet offerings and a selection of Italian digestivi to help everything go down nicely.
Ruggerino’s devotion to family tradition extends beyond the plate to the restaurant’s main dining room, where sepia toned photographs of his relatives in the old country hang proudly on the walls, complementing the dark timber ceilings, mercury glass chandeliers and curved windows of the heritage-listed building.
The room, like the food, has a sense of authenticity about it as most of the structure’s original Victorian features, including original arches and the ceiling’s herringbone strutting, were restored when Ruggerino moved in seven years ago.
The upper level of the two-storey structure features an expansive bar and lounge and intimate private dining rooms that have been repurposed for tight-lipped corporate functions and rowdy family gatherings.
By night, dim lighting adds a sensual air to the space and seductive dark corners are ever so inviting.
As I mull over the menu, a tasting plate of the chef’s favourite antipasti is graciously placed in front of me – a rather delightful distraction.
It’s a wooden board filled with cured meats, a succulent caprese salad, delicate zucchini flowers that are filled with ricotta and, the crowning glory: a gleaming, bulbous centrepiece of buffalo mozzarella, except it looks more like ricotta than mozzarella because it’s so fresh and Ruggerino tells me he’d only just finished making it an hour ago.
Needless to say its gooey and creamy and tastes like heaven.
So after careful consideration – and several helpings of the buffalo mozzarella – I opt for the confit duck leg with herb gnocci and caramelised balsamic pear.
Yes, I know I’m tempting fate by ordering gnocci, but these are herb-loaded and pan-fried, not boiled and swimming in sauce like Nonna’s.
When the dish arrives, every element is stacked neatly on the plate with the potato gnocci bathed in a rich broth at the bottom, two succulent duck legs in the middle and a glistening, browned pear perched on the top.
I quickly dismantle the delicate structure and am pleased to discover the gnocci are flavourful and light, with a slight crispiness around the edges.
Likewise, the duck has an incredibly crunchy shell, with the skin forming a golden crackling while the dark meat inside remains succulent and soft.
The sticky sweetness of the pear adds depth. It’s a saccharine hit that is the perfect counterpart to the pungent duck.
Washed down with a glass of velvety Woodcutter’s shiraz from the Torbreck vineyard in the Barossa Valley and the dish reaches ultimate comfort food status.
Dessert excites in a similar way – warm bitter chocolate fondant with vanilla gelato.
As soon as my spoon pierces the outer shell the liquid heart of the cake oozes out and all around the plate.
It’s warm and intense in my mouth and the vanilla gelato has a cooling effect on the rich, decadent chocolate.
This is honest, rustic Italian cuisine that transports me right back to Nonna’s kitchen and, unlike some of the newer urban eateries popping up throughout Sydney, Verde’s raison d’être isn’t fodder for the critics and bloggers, or even a response to transient food trends, but a genuine devotion to the casalinga and her many culinary triumphs.
I recommend arriving at Verde on an empty stomach and letting Ruggerino’s family guide you home.
Cnr Stanley St & 115 Riley St