“So have you been to Tuscany?” Getting stuck at dinner behind a table reliving their all-expenses-included, mid-life crisis ‘Best of Italy’ package tour with the waiter as they order their after-dinner grappa ("just like real Italians do"), has the ability to make you wince harder than a shot of grappa ever could.
Luckily, Paolo Orso and his team at Mantecato in Balmain run a friendly service that listens with an indulgent smile to the rhapsodising that is cheesier than the risotto he served the same bloke half an hour ago. He drops the grappa with a brisk “prego” and is off again to tend to the hordes that have poured in from the surrounding low-rise, no-man's-land of apartments and warehouses into the perky white bentwood, plywood and ‘public bath’ seafoam-green room to warm their stomachs with Mantecato’s specialties: risotto and pasta.
Although we have the dodgy table right at the end of a narrow corridor that cops the mid-July evening chill every time the door opens, we do get to see much of the menu as it sails past on its way to the outdoor tables at the back as we pick at a nice assortment of marinated olives. Ravioli sit buttery brown under lacy Parmesan veils. Steaks of robust girth, piled with sides present a welcome challenge to be reckoned with. But there’s no avoiding the risotto, so we order it with parmesan and balsamic reduction ($22), as well as a dish of handmade tagliatelle with carbonara sauce ($35) — just to make sure we’re on top of our calcium intake, of course.
For the purpose of reviewing, I usually split dishes with my dining companion. Tonight, however, all I wanted to do was disappear under the table with my pasta and give the shimmering tagliatelle with its musky, truffled-egg sauce, chunky pancetta and confetti of truffle shavings my undivided attention. Instead, I stayed above the table, made polite conversation and tried the risotto. Pale as the waning moon and cut with a splash of balsamic reduction that resembles sumi brushwork, the grains of rice perfectly maintained their form while being held in a slithery, unguent suspension that was a touch disappointing for its milky politeness. I would have preferred it had the sauce employed a parmesan that snuck up and bit me back harder.
After dinner, the chocolate fondant we're after, whose freshly baked fug has blessed the room like incense all night, has sold out. As far as the rest of the dessert menu goes, it’s too cold for frozen custard and gelato, tiramisu is a bit of a yawn and ‘rice cake’ probably isn’t a good idea after risotto. Luckily, the special — a trio of mini cannoli with ricotta, vanilla and chocolate fillings ($12) — end the night on a note that is crisp, silky and sweet. It has us wondering how soon we could afford to eat them in their natural habitat.