For Sydneysiders living south of the harbour bridge, there are places on the north shore that sound unfamiliar. Small, mainly residential suburbs rarely get mentioned in the inner city chit-chat of new bars and cafes.
Castlecrag is a quiet area on the lower north shore, near the waters of Middle Harbour. There's not much in the way of eating, but up springs Artusi, a small traditional Italian joint that is more likely to be found in Haberfield or Leichhardt. Named after an 18th-century Italian culinary author, Pellegrino Artusi, the service is warm and slightly cheeky, and the food homely and welcoming.
The crowd is very much local: slightly older, wealthy, content. Which is just as well, as Artusi, in atmosphere and cuisine, is an extension of the old Italian mamma's kitchen. There's no major innovations here, just old standards done extremely well.
Chef and co-owner Luca D'Adamio worked at the Michelin-starred Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli in Italy and doesn't flower his food with unnecessary flourishes. The house dish is the ragu della mamma (translation: ragu like mama used to make), which combines slow-cooked lamb, veal and pork ($26), but the seafood dishes are highlights. A starter of mussels in white wine with a thick tomato sauce and basil ($17) is simple and effective, while the main, gnocchi with scampi in a lemon cream sauce, is delicious.
Throw in a wine list that traverses Italian vino and you have a pretty good microcosm of the country in Castlecrag. Now you know where it is.