You'd be forgiven for thinking that you're dining at Nonna's house when you eat at Verde. The casalinga-style restaurant is warm and cosy with nourishing food and friendly service to match; albeit, Nonna's perhaps wasn't as fancy as this. That's not to say that Verde is pretentious — not at all. In fact, what sets Verde apart from other posh restaurants is how it expertly fuses together Southern Italian cuisine with a friendly, family-like yet fine dining experience.
Situated on Riley Street in Darlinghurst, Verde Restaurant and Bar is tucked away in an old Victorian-era building. Downstairs, the modern interior is characterised by dark timbers that exude a casual, warm vibe. Upstairs delivers an even more relaxed space — the bar offering an ideal place to have a Bellini cocktail ($15) either pre or post-meal.
The owner and chef Antonio Ruggerino is irrepressibly passionate about food and life, and this is reflected in the menu, which takes inspiration from his childhood and family background. Southern Italian cuisine is distinct from the other regions, with eggplant, tomatoes and olives predominantly featured. Speaking of olives, whet the appetite with some warm Sicilian olives — gratuito.
From there it only gets better. Word of warning, however: don't wear a belt as portion sizes are indicative of the Italians' love of food. Antipasti offerings include chilli dusted calamari ($12) that are perfectly spiced, yet could be crispier, and arancini balls with grape tomato salsa ($6 for two or $12 for four) that yield just the right amount of cheesy mozzarella inside. Zucchini flowers ($14) are delicious too, but go easy: stuffed with ricotta and spinach, they are quite the rich starter.
It's unthinkable that pasta not be on the menu, with the Calabrese braised pork shank ragu ($28) a star attraction. Make sure you enjoy it with a glass of the Italian Sangiovese ($10). The quintessential linguine marinara is replete with prawns, mussels and barramundi ($32) and a glass of Cesaro Pinot Grigio ($12) is a great accompaniment. The pan-fried barramundi with chicory salsa and beans ($32) is palatable yet needs a tad more gusto. For something fresh and simple alongside, the rocket and pear salad ($12) or buffalo mozzarella with vine-ripened tomatoes and basil ($16) both live up to their fashionable expectations.
You may be pressed for stomach space, but it is hard to pass up Antonio's desserts: the tiramisu ($14) is worthy of some kind of medal; and buffalo milk gelato is sweetened up with berries and yellow gum honey ($14). The affogato with Frangelico liquore ($15) is on the 'next time' list.
All in all, Verde delivers a certain amount of chic and complexity, whilst undoubtedly being proud and passionately Italian. It's modern, refined yet somewhat akin to Nonna's dining room — comfortable enough for any occasion.