From the kitchen of our ‘Capo’, chef Paola Toppi
Someone asked me last week why I love Australia. I guess it’s because I have a lot to thank this beautiful country for. It’s the nation that accepted my mother and father as immigrants in the 1950s and it’s the birthplace of my two sons. While I was born in Naples and my husband is Scottish, we are both Australian citizens. You could say that Italy is where my old roots are, while Australia has my new ones. And like a new oak, my roots here are strong and immovable.
The contrast and similarities between my old and new roots was the starting off point for our new summer menu here at Bar M.
Over the break I was rummaging through old cupboards and found this photo of my dad, Walter, who was from the Le Marche region. It’s the print of a photograph given to him by the photographer Rennie Ellis, in the 70s. It shows dad (pictured far right) outside the coffee shop, Mamma Maria, on William Street. Mamma Maria was a tiny little cubby hole, but was the first place to serve espresso coffee in Sydney.
I sometimes forget to mention my father, even though he was a huge influence on my mother, Giovanna, and I. I get my cooking skills from mum, but I get my mathematical brain from dad. He was an SP bookmaker and I always used to help him do the books from the time I was a teenager. My earliest memories of cooking are making his eggs on a Sunday morning; mum didn’t have the patience and I was the only one that knew how to make them. He loved the yolk to be very, very runny, but the whites had to be cooked through, which isn’t easy to do. He died when I was 22, and I still miss him deeply.
Dad loved the beach – it was all about the beach for him. We were always either at the beach or out on the water around Watsons Bay (Paola as a young girl, and Giovanna below). I was thinking about this over the break and the memories of him taking me back to Naples when I was a little girl. Sydney is similar in many ways to Naples, and not just because of the weather and beach-outdoor lifestyle. Neapolitans have always incorporated the best of international influences – in part due to their centuries of occupation – while retaining their core soul and DNA. Living in Sydney, similar to Naples in that it is a cosmopolitan and thriving international city and cultural melting pot, gives me the opportunity to update the Neapolitan classics with whatever makes the dish more flavoursome.
Naples, with its warm climate and red volcanic soil, produces some of the best produce in Italy. I’d kill for the tomatoes we have in Naples. I’ve searched high and low here in Australia over the past few years and have found a particular cherry tomato that I love (the name of my grower is a secret I’ll take to my grave). They make a huge difference to flavour and the closest I’m going to get to Neapolitan tomatoes.
What Naples doesn’t have that Sydney has is the quality of meat and seafood. Neapolitan chefs would die for our lamb and every cut of beef – the sirloin, scotch fillet, Angus fillet, and tenderloin. We use any cut of meat and make it great. I want to do an eye fillet with freshly made porcini sauce in the coming months. Italian porcini are usually sourced up north in the forest, but the cost to bring them here is astronomical. The same goes for white truffles. If they languish in Sydney customs for more than a few days they’re ruined.
But I’ve never seen the quality of Australian seafood quite as a good as we have now. Cooked with the precision we strive for, these dishes, made from the best-of-the-best local fish and shellfish, are delicate, silky and will melt-in-your-mouth.
For this summer menu I’ve retained old favourites such as pappardelle with Blue Swimmer crab, spaghetti alle vongole and the super light gnocchetti with scampi and prawns cooked in white wine, herbs and cherry tomatoes. I’ve introduced spaghetti alla chitarra made with lightly sautéed prawns, thinly sliced pumpkin, white wine and pink peppercorns.
I’ve made the traditional shellfish risotto (below) lighter by not adding the heavier tomato sauces; our risotto marinara is light and made with local mussels, prawns, vongole, calamari and scampi.
A new dish only ever found in Naples is my tagliatelle alla Genovese (‘Genovese’ in this case is named after a person, not the city in N-W Italy). I make this with caramelised onions, slow-cooked braised veal and finish it with parmesan. We cook the braised veal for hours and likewise caramelise the onions until they melt into the sauce. This meal is traditionally served over two courses as a separate pasta and meat dish, but I’ve combined the two because our house-made tagliatelle perfectly captures and absorbs the flavour of the onions and veal in a way I’ve never tasted before. It’s time consuming to make, but I think our customers are going to love it.
New meat-based secondi include lamb chops crumbled, filled with fetta, mint and pink peppercorns and swordfish parcel with mussels, vongole, scampi, red peppers, chilli and tomatoes, cooked via the in cartoccio steaming method (below).
This summer our desserts are focused on traditional Neapolitan classics. Joining the flourless torta Caprese are rich Neapolitan versions of chocolate mousse and rum baba, the latter of which is a sponge cake soaked in rum and sugar syrup (‘o babba’ is also a compliment in the Neapolitan dialect).
Finishing off the menu are our new dessert cocktails, such as the popular pannacotta and tiramisu, made by head bartender and mixologist, Matteo – rated one of the top ten Italian bartenders worldwide.
I guess this menu is my concept of the Neapolitan dialect – a version of Italian only spoken locally. In my case, I speak the Neapolitan dialect with my hands and the restaurant is my kind of piazza – a meeting place for likeminded people and customers wanting light and delicate dishes cooked with precision.
I hope to see you soon in the restaurant and, of course, would love to hear your feedback on the new menu.
Want to read more from our ‘Capo’? Click the links below…