“To queue or not to queue”, – that is the question. Since opening on October 24, Jamie’s Italian has instantly attracted numbers that only his celebrity endorsement can provide, and others established within the industry can only dream about. The concept, now spread over 26 locations worldwide, is far from cutting edge, but you have to respect the instant traction gained with little or no publicity, and all without an appearance by the star attraction to date. Is this new version of chain dining sustainable? Well, they seem to think so, if the clones they plan to open throughout Australia are any guide, but history tells us only repeat trade decides that fate.
Split over two levels, with street-window-front pasta station, and full blown graffiti wall upstairs, the feel is slightly London funk meets try hard Italian. In fairness the vibe does work. Heavily staffed, given the massive covers it is turning over, service drifts between attentive and hyperactive, most importantly it is never over intrusive. The bar assists in ‘parking the masses’ waiting for tables, as best it can, whilst the constant movement of humanity is done efficiently and without disruption. An advanced electronic ordering and table management system keeps anarchy at bay when at ‘full tilt’, and clearly it has been refined as the chain expands outward.
Starting with nibbles, the so called Italian nachos ($7), a slightly under seasoned and fairly non distinctive fried four-cheese ravioli, is served with an angry arrabiatta sauce in name only. Two decent sourdough slices of bruschetta ($12) have ‘punchy’ tomatoes, and a garlic and creamy ricotta, with particularly vibrant baby basil. The crispy polenta chips ($8), with rosemary and topped with Parmesan, has the necessary crunch, but does not topple my local benchmark at Cipri Italian in Paddington. The texture and decent heat note carries the crispy squid ($12), with a solid garlic mayo as a dipper. Conversely, the flavourless and slightly overdone mushroom fritti ($9), topped with Parmesan and backed up with the same dip, offers little by comparison.
The risotto Milanese ($14/$21) is visually stunning, with two filled bones protruding, although my preference would have been for a little more herb roasted marrow and a touch less lemon and parsley gremolata. The consistency of the dish is a little more set than expected, although it is still a solid dish overall without perhaps delivering on its looks. Having seen the apprentices in the window ‘knocking up’ the fresh pasta, expectations were high for the bucatini carbonara ($12/$19), hidden under a mountain of fairly redundant garnish. The smoked pancetta lingers, but the texture of the pasta requires a ‘Jedi mind trick’ to either twirl or capture on the fork. Shame, because it is a fairly respectable dish, becoming both frustrating and messy.
The standout course, whole-roasted baby pink Snapper ($29.50), is a redemptive and triumphant piece of execution that I would definitely return for. Served with sweet and sour vegetables, delivering the listed crunch, it provides the textural counterpoint to lovely moist flesh. A side which finally provides a constructive context for truffle oil, moorish posh chips ($6), absolutely loaded up with Parmesan, are ‘lovely jubberly’, as the man himself would say. The herby Tuscan wild boar sausages ($22.50), lean more towards a Winter than Spring dish in my opinion, with emphasis on the ‘mother-load’ of lentil and salsa rossa piccante. This was intended I assume to lighten the dish, but sadly achieves the opposite. The trevise and gorgonzola salad ($9), is devoid of the advertised ‘stickiest balsamic’, but some particulary nice walnuts save the party.
Desserts, especially the tiramisu ($9), absolutely abounds with orange liqueur and zest, competing with a very resounding coffee note, offers pretty decent gratification at the price. Similarly, the moist and buttery, but bizarrely named Italian Bakewell almond tart ($9) with fresh fruits, is solid enough. Nothing else too challenging is attempted (e.g. panna cotta, affogato, chocolate brownie), but it is hard to be overly critical when no desserts top the $10 mark.
The final question posed by Jamie’s Italian is: what relevance does this global franchise bring to Sydney dining? The upside for diners is accessible and tightly priced menus; driven solely through the large turnover of covers they service. The downside is slightly veiled cooking by the numbers which may not appeal to everyone, with far more authentic Italian available elsewhere. Perhaps the answer is not to look beyond what the restaurant is trying to replicate, which is decent technically stripped back food, which the lad from Essex has been banging on about ever since The Naked Chef launched his career all those years ago. Whether this fulfils Jamie’s promise on the menu of “good food for everyone, no matter what” remains in the eye of the beholder, although my experience of this style of dining was entirely acceptable for what it aspires to be.
107 Pitt Street,Sydney
Mon-Sat 11.30am to late