First published in Broadsheet, May 2015
For Stefano Manfredi, the iconic chef behind Sydney’s Osteria di Balla, the most memorable culinary encounters are those that see regions and seasons take centre stage.
For many of us, growing up is fraught with the process of wishing away the things that make us different from our friends. But for Stefano Manfredi, the Sydney chef who’s often credited with championing Italian cuisine in Australia, embracing what set him apart has cemented his status as a culinary pioneer.
“I’ve been in Australia since I was six years old and grew up in Blacktown, a working-class suburb in Sydney’s west. From an early age, I knew we ate differently from my Australian friends,” says Manfredi. He runs Balla, a sleek, Italian osteria at The Star and the fabled Central Coast eatery Manfredi at Bells.
His now-defunct The Restaurant Manfredi is still Australia’s most awarded Italian restaurant. “Everything we ate at home was handmade by my mother from scratch. We’d eat things like rabbit, which a lot of people didn’t seem to have. When I opened my first restaurant, I wanted to show people that Italian food wasn’t what people thought it was. For instance, spaghetti bolognaise is an American invention. In Italy, when you travel between one town and the next, you change cuisines. And the locals will argue about which is better.”
Now in its third year, the Balla Regional Dinner Series sees the restaurateur collaborate with chefs such as Ormeggio at The Spit’s Alessandro Pavoni, Balla’s Gabriele Taddeucci and Marco Ribechini from Manfredi at Bells. They will present four-course menus that showcase the ways in which regions and seasons profoundly shape the way Italians eat. For instance, the event’s autumn instalment featured earthy dishes such as baccala of glacier toothfish and roast turkey stuffed with mustard fruit as a tribute to Pavoni’s native Lombardy – a region shaped by mountains, plains and freshwater lakes. Highlights of the upcoming Tuscany and Puglia editions include house-made pappardelle with rabbit and chestnut sauce and ricotti gnocchi with cannellini beans.
“I’m often in Italy two months of the year and have fallen in love with the cuisine of southern regions like Sicily and Campagnia. I thought by doing a regional series, we could expose people to different things,” explains Manfredi, who plans to take diners on a cooking tour through Italy later this year. “The Lombardy dinner with Alessandro is slightly different because we’re not only from the same region, we’re from the same province. But we cook very different things because he comes from the mountains and I come from the plains. When Puglia comes around, it’s coastal as well as mountainous – some of the mountains are higher than Kosciuszko in some parts, so the cuisine is heavily based on olives and tomatoes, as well as that famous cheese, burrata. The Tuscany dinner next month will see my two chefs, Gabriele and Marco, do two menus – one in Balla and the other at Manfredi at Bells based on dishes from their families. They’re a reminder that even though you might be cooking food from your own town, every family has their own take.”