pendolino – a tilting train or an Italian ristorante?

I have arrived at the fashionista mecca - the historic Strand Arcade in George St, Sydney.

Yet I am not here to shop (though would be seriously tempted if they were open at this time!) but to sample the food of renowned Nino Zoccali and his team at Pendolino.

Nino has a delicious reputation from his days at Otto and Nove, however he has left the Terzini stable to begin his own Sydney venture.

Pendolino not only features a restaurant, yet it also functions during the day as a café, wine bar and an olive oil enoteca.

It is, however, not the easiest to find. If I had not known to head to the top floor, I would have needed some assistance beyond my navman.

After heading up the ancient Victorian lift I am greeted by a large, yet unattended, concierge desk. Although I could see the chefs creating behind the glass window, and waiters busily a wander inside, no one was there to see us arrive which was a little disconcerting as we were on time for our 9pm booking.

Eventually someone swept by, and although not too long, it was long enough.

Yet all discord disappeared as we were welcomed into the dining room.

Strolling through I noticed it abounded with the energy of people talking, eating and drinking with pleasure and enjoying their night. It was quite a bustle for a Monday, which was certainly pleasing.

Passing the intimate private dining room you see a large cellared wall of wines and olive oils and a wrought iron ‘curtain’ dividing the room. It is quite a graceful restaurant featuring exposed brick walls, wrought iron olive leaf shaded lights, dark timbers and carpets which are contrasted by the beautifully crisp white linens, romantic timber chairs and comfortable leather banquettes. A restaurant that signifies elegance yet also heartfelt Italian warmth that I hoped the food would match.

Our waiter, in his handsome designer Farage suit, produced our menus. We were mesmerised, not only by his fashionable attire, but also with his romantic Italian accent….he could have been reciting the alphabet and we would have still been enamoured!

A good wine list with mix of Australian and Italian wines, however unfamiliar with some of the Italian varieties we asked for some recommendations it was hard to go past our sommelier's innate passion for wines from the homeland. So we followed his heart and ordered the Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Shiraz and Merlot

Then we carefully examined the menu many choices tickled our desires. Twice our waiter asked for our choices yet still the crew and I weren’t undecided. A menu like this needs time to savour and ensure a good decision making process.

Although the Pappardelle con ragu di vitella ($19) tempted me I decided upon the Fegatini D’anartra con le amarene ($19). Duck liversperfectly seared and lightly browned on the outside yet still softly pink and tender on the inside and drizzled with a sour cherry jus. The first bite of each lobe oozed a meaty indulgence yet dissolved in the mouth almost like foie gras. Served on the side was white polenta which had been fashioned into a log then pan-seared to give it a golden, crusted top yet still retained an inner gentle creamy texture and some deliciously crisp pancettta.

My dining counterparts had fallen in love with the idea of the Proscuitto ‘bianco e rosso’ ($19) a divine blend of red and white pork served with crisp light rosemary infused grissini and Sardinian flat bread. The ‘rosso’ is prosciutto from San Daniele a mass of rich, deep pinky red curls of earthy cured pork meat. The ‘bianco’ is actually pork belly fat which has been cured in the style of Colonnata meaning that it has been traditionally cured in marble tanks. To me the ‘bianco’ was the enchanting part of the dish wafer thin slices of lard with a gentle smokiness and yeastiness that just melted on the tongue and although Rosemary Stanton may be horrified - trust me it is worth every wicked mouthful!

The Spaghettia chitarra ($23) or ‘guitar pasta’ named so as it is cut with a guitar like cutter, was certainly an exciting entrée. The house made saffron infused pasta added visual vibrancy to the dish which abounds with the flavourful robustness of garlic, chilli and capers blended with the stylish sweetness of barrumundi and prawns and good splashing of pinot grigio.

As for mains they were even harder to decide on! We had already ‘tested’ the kitchen’s pasta and so had to test their risotto skills, and thankfully were delighted. Risotto di asparagi e fave ($34) is an ample serve of tender, velvety risotto comprised of al dente carnaroli rice dotted with small cuts of fresh asparagus and crushed fava beans. Yet it still retains that traditionally desired slight brothiness in the dish. Though although my Italian counterpart adored this, I found it all a little intoxicating as was too heavily infused with parmigiano reggiano and truffled butter which overshadowed the delicate asparagus and natural creaminess of the rice.

Porchetta al finocchio ($37) paired slowly cooked Krobuta pork belly with a rosemary and fennel flavoured crust. Quite a pork lovers delight as the the pork belly sat atop slices of rich garlicky cotechino sausage which certainly charmed my inner carnivore. However it was let down by the rather dense bed of white bean and potato puree and tart salad of blood orange and fennel. The confusing flavours were further intensified by the blood orange oil which was a little overpowering. I felt the overall finish of the dish was a little too hectic for my palate and would have preferred enjoying the purity of just ‘fennelled’ rosemary pork with potato.

The Quaglia all griglia ($37) the quail although supposedly to be chargrilled tasted like it had only been waved over the grill and then steamed. Besides a few grill marks its skin was quite soft with a boiled like taste and texture. It left a heavy fatty taste in the mouth and the meat was a little on the pinker side. It was overloaded it even more by the slurps of olive oil on the plate the quail was unctuous enough yet exaggerated by the Piccardy Olive Oil from Permberton. I know that this is a feature of Nino’s menu highlighting the olive oil however on this occasion I felt he could have left it out. Thankfully the perfumed dried black olive sauce and perfectly cooked thyme & garlic potatoes with their crispy outer skin and creamy inner flesh saved the dish.

The Bistecca al Ferri ($39) was the piatto forte of the night. An impeccably chargrilled piece of tender, grass-fed beef sirloin resting upon a pillow of creamy, malty oxtail and pearl barley risotto with a dazzle of sweet baby pearl onions . This was more like it - a rustic italian dish became an elegant ‘affare’ as the quality ingredients cooked to perfection and their delicious simplicity glowed – belissimo Nino!

Now you would think that by this time the crew and I had come to our digestive limits yet we had to at least sample one dessert and our senses were delighted.Semifreddo di torrone alle mondorle ($15) is a creamy milky ice cream interspersed with almond nougat, sweet floral Ligurian honey and crispy caramelised dots of candied almond. Intensely sweet yet totally sensual - the perfect ending to dinner.

So like its name Pendolino takes you on a tilting journey between delizioso to confusione yet overall she settles to become a delight.

Shop 100 – 102, Level 2, The Strand Arcade, 412 -414 George St Sydney

Open Mon – Fri for lunch 12 -3 pm and dinner Mon – Sat 6-10pm.
Chef: Nino Zoccali
Owners: Nino Zoccali & SG Foodservice Pty Ltd
Entrees:$19 – 26
Mains: $29 -39
Desserts: $12 – 17
Wines: Selection of Australian and Italian wines with 21 available by the glass.