Sydney, Australia: Family, friends and fine dining

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Sydney, Australia: Family, friends and fine dining

Lucio pauses mid-stride as he passes my table and then – perhaps because he can recognise the colour and bouquet, or maybe he cheated and peaked at my order – says enthusiastically, “Ah, but you are drinking a wine from my region, Liguria”.

He claps his hands gently then stares at me for a moment.

What happens next is beyond cheating and peaking: “But you are my friend from New Zealand,” he says as if we have known each other a lifetime.

I had only been to Lucio Galletto's restaurant in Sydney's Paddington once before and that had been at least six months previous. Either Lucio had a remarkable memory or I stood out in a crowd, because on that occasion I had been with a large group of artists and gallery patrons.

We had met at Tim Olsen's nearby gallery where he introduced his renowned artist/father John and an exhibition of John's vibrant paintings of food. John spoke and then Lucio to whose self-named restaurant we would later go to for a leisurely, understated but superb lunch.

The Olsens and Lucio had been longtime friends and one of John's paintings – perhaps more – was on the art-lined walls of Lucio's. He also designed the menu.

Lucio from Liguria is drawn to the company of artists, and I guessed quite a number paid for meals and the hospitality of this family-run restaurant by giving him paintings.

Lucio's Italian Restaurant is an institution in Sydney: 27 years ago it opened in leafy suburban Windsor Street and has been regularly awarded two hats in the Sydney Good Food Guide, the last time presented by the Italian president in recognition of fine Italian cuisine outside of Italy.

As Lucio firmly shook my hand I mentioned I'd been with the Olsens last time and he was delighted.

“They are here now,” he said and waved to nearby table. Tim, John and friends waved back and I went over and shook more hands.

resized_9781741750768_224_297_fitsquareLucio's might seem high-end, but the family atmosphere and friendliness are its hallmarks – and Galletto comes with a wonderful backstory, as told in the handsomely presented biography, travel guide and recipe book Soffritto: A Ligurian Memoir billed as “lived by Lucio Galletto, written by David Dale, photographed by Paul Green”.

The book is sold at Lucio's but Galletto seems to give away just as many. It is worth reading. Published in 2007, the book tells of Galletto's recent journeys back to Liguria to explore the region he left half his lifetime ago when he fell in love with an Australian girl.

“Issues of identity are plaguing him,” writes Dale who accompanied Galletto on his three journeys of self-discovery back to his homeland. “He'll be observing local customs as both an outsider and an insider.”

And so the book – the title of which refers to the sauce base made from pulped garlic, parsley and other ingredients fried in hot oil – tells of the region his family know as Lunigiana along the Magra River in northwest coastal Italy.

Here his family fought the fascists (not all of them as it turns out), father Mauro and uncle (on his mother's side) Gino Guelfi opened Ciccio's on the beach in 1951 to sell soup and fish to locals and artists, and there the young Lucio fell in love with Sally and left for Australia.

The stories of Soffritto are beguiling: encounters with old friends and eccentric characters; small villages and family restaurants, fascists and partisans; Etruscan and Roman ruins; and treks through the mountains to find fine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, the perfect parmesan and local delicacies and ingredients such as lardo made from the fat of a pig's back.

Along the way Galletto rediscovers his soffritto, the essence of himself.

Not a book to read with an appetite of course because food is woven through almost every anecdote or encounter, and the final dozen pages are of simple but delicious recipes.

At that gallery launch many months previous Tim, John and Lucio had spoken passionately of their entwined love of food, art, family . . . and of friendship.

As I leave Lucio Galletto shakes my hand again -- “my friend from New Zealand” he says with a huge smile – then as an afterthought adds with enormous enthusiasm, “We have another New Zealander here all the time, he comes almost every day.”

I'm intrigued and ask who this might be, a Kiwi drawn to this multiple award-winning restaurant of food from a tiny region of northern Italy.

“It is our chef, Logan Campbell. He is from New Zealand too.”

Lucio's Italian Restaurant: 47 Windsor Street, Paddington, Sydney. See website here.

For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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