Sydney has a habit of chewing its way through restaurants.
Obviously, those that do are still with us for a reason. They are bloody good.
Many of the stayers are Italian.
Anyone have a theory about that?
As a cuisine, is Italian more comforting, nourishing, more generous, more familiar, less fussy than some? The easily pronounced dishes? Do we love Italian waitresses and waiters?
Sad to say we have just said farewell, (hopefully arrivederci) to one of our finest in Sydney.
Lucio’s of Windsor Street, Paddington.
A few months’ notice was given, prompting the town to scramble for the final dinners and lunches. There have been numerous articles published by professional writers, tasters and aficionados saying thanks for the memories. Filled with deserved praise of fine food, fun, wine and unique to these premises, a mighty collection of contemporary art.
This is more of a personal tribute.
The story starts with Sally, an Aussie girl travelling in Italy in the seventies. Her footsteps magically took her to a family restaurant in Liguria. There worked Lucio Galletto. They were married in Paris and, playing out the fairytale, made their way back to Sydney a few years later.
Lucio opened his first restaurant in Balmain and in 1983 made the move to Paddington, a now heritage-listed area of small streets edged with rows and rows of Victorian-era terrace houses with their cast iron lace balconies.
The corner block had an excellent pedigree, formerly the home of the Hungry Horse – a highly regarded French restaurant with a gallery upstairs. The art crowd could find their way there and home blindfolded.
As it happened, conveniently just around a couple of corners was one of Australia’s hottest advertising agencies, Mojo, deliberately shunning the CBD’s highrises to rejoice in the village atmosphere of the suburb.
A new restaurant within strolling distance was obviously checked out on Day One. By the end of the week, it was virtually the staff lunchroom.
In the eighties going out at lunchtime was obligatory for ad people.
(I think I can hear some snorting going on now. From those who’ve always believed advertising ranks lower than used car sales and also from those in advertising today toiling in more modern and responsible circumstances who missed the Golden Age of Lunching.)
We loved the food and the service. Lucio, the man, was, as you would expect, a delightful and engaging host.
He had one small problem. His knowledge of local wines was probably shaded a little by the palates of us experienced lunchers. So he presented our table with the samples brought to him by the wineries’ reps.
We tasted. We enquired about the asking price. We evaluated. We made our recommendations. Possibly the happiest ever compiling of a wine list.
In the early days, everyone fitted into the smallish front room. Sometimes only us, not nearly filling it. Lots of time to chat with Lucio, but there was some strain on his cheerful face.
Soon enough, the word spread and Lucio and Sally’s magic touch was amply rewarded.
An early visitor was one of Australia’s most revered artists, popping in after working his magic on the film Burke & Wills. He scribbled (can I say that?) an image of outlaw Ned Kelly’s famous helmet on the back of the bill and signed it Sidney Nolan. Lucio spent a fair sum having it beautifully gold framed. And so the Art Adventure began.
The modest Nolan, positioned proudly as you walked in, was over the years joined by more and more paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics of all sizes until the walls were covered. Many were food and drink related, created especially for the space, but some were gratefully donated from the artist’s then work in progress.
A fabulous collection.
But Lucio is waving them goodbye. If you are ready to say hello to one of them, you can follow up at Bonhams auction on March 21st.
Time to talk about the food that was.
Deeply Italian, of course. Some just excellent produce presented simply. Others with breathtaking twists of technique and richness.
All kinds of seafood showcased our ocean proximity. Oysters, prawns, bugs, crabs, pipis. Meats and fowl on rotation, two or three per menu: veal, pork, venison, lamb and beef. Chicken, spatchcock, quail.
Always three or four pasta. Rarely desserts for us, tempting though they were. Sometimes cheeses were intriguing and insistent; how else to finish a bottle of red?
Quick meal (yes, sometimes) or settle in. Never a disappointment, or a dull moment. On the positive side of the ledger, many great ads were conceived there.
The kitchens saw just five head chefs in 38 years. All of them introduced tantalizing new touches, but some of the Ligurian classics ran the whole distance. Lucio’s wine list is, of course solidly Italian.
At our final lunch, we enjoyed three whites we hadn’t tried before including a pecorino. Yes, same name as the cheese. The grape has a naturally high sugar content which can yield higher alcohol. It is weighty in the mouth but crisp and dry with herby hints. A white to search out.
In honour of the Year of Foundation, we elected to pay corkage to bring a bottle of Penfold’s Magill, a shiraz from 1983, the first vintage of a single vineyard from Australia’s leading red winemaker. The Magill Estate is still bearing near the original winery founded by Dr Christopher Penfold in 1884. This bottle had passed its peak but still offered a memorable mouthful, the residual strength of its original fruit now cradled in savoury arms. Alongside the lamb with beetroot, it was brotherly.
Parting is such sweet sorrow? Goodnight Sweet Prince?
The English language is replete with phrases of farewell.
Italian probably is too.
So this is a note of farewell. Of heartfelt thanks.
One of our final lunch members recalled how he started with a simple pasta Bolognese and finished with a memorably flavourful lamb, a bottle or two of red and a few laughs with Lucio and his Day One mates, some fifteen thousand three hundred and thirty-five days later.
My memories also included a 20th Anniversary Dinner where Lucio’s invited the pioneers and our ladies to revisit history. The menu that night had a selection of entrées and mains from the past, each dated from its start year.
Another of the lads recalls Lucio’s incredible generosity in hosting a 60th birthday for 30 guests to show his appreciation for the support the Mojo team, many of whom were at the dinner, gave him, especially in the first five years. He refused Lucio’s offer to supply the wine as well because it would probably send him to the poorhouse, as we were all ‘professional drinkers’.
Another chap took us back to leaving the office many years ago, heading to the new restaurant two blocks away called Lucio’s. We were met by the man himself, a young Italian with a face as friendly as a bowl of Bolognese.
Only two tables occupied. Ours and a couple of guys from an art gallery up the road. It was like that for years, nodding at the chaps at the other table before we got on with the eating and drinking.
“I remember having this dish called Tagliolini all Granseola, chunks of blue swimmer crab breast-stroking their way through a sea of green pasta, awash with tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and butter. I was thinking: Bloody hell, I’ve died and gone to heaven.
38 years later. Sitting down with the same mates for another Friday lunch at Lucio’s. Unfortunately the last one. Our favourite restaurant is closing. Lucio joins us for a drink. I order you guessed it ….
Crabs in heaven.
Thanks, Lucio and Sally. It was quite a ride.