Sydney Times

CANBERRA CONNOISSEUR MAGAZINE VISIT CANBERRA

Agostinis- Canberra’s best “Cucina Italiana” 

Written by Aksel Ritenis

“Agostinis”- Canberra’s best Cucina Italiana 

  • This article from Axel Diary on Connoisseur Magazine has been recycled and freshened

RELAXED SOPHISTICATION AND A TOUCH OF PLAYFULNESS CREATES A DESTINATION ITALIAN DINING EXPERIENCE IN THE NATION’S CAPITAL

Sometimes I am amazed by my own luck,..generally when I arrive at a Vineyard or Winery to compile a review,….the sun is invariably shining,…and the curious thing is,…. that this has been going on for about 15 years,…or as long as I can remember! After numerous Wine Journalist Junkets in Italy,. Spain and France, (the stuff that every Influencer or Wine Blogger now dreams about),.. or even in my native Australia…I cannot ever recall it having rained on tour,..although I did once see plumes of smoke rising from the Mount Aetna volcano in Sicily,..in what was perhaps a warning of an incipient eruption!?!

Whether it’s Bordeaux or Puglia or Toscana,..or Rioja,..every time I go near a vineyard, winery or a Hotel Restaurant with a view to compiling a report Review or article,…the sun is invariably shining..I can only presume this is some sort of blessing from God or other powers in the universe….

So too it was when I visited Canberra recently,.. to Review the East Hotel and experience the new Winter  Dinner Menu at Agostinis.

The quality of the food at Agostinis has been good since its inception,..and I was looking forward to the latest experience. After a warm welcome from Francesco,..the Italian Chef,..(he invariably shows me a new wine or cocktail,)..I learned that the Truffle Season had commenced and that he had Tartuffo Nero on the menu.. apparently sourced from a grower in the Canberra region.

Its no secret that numerous Australians have  spent weeks if not months traveling in Europe and specifically Italy,..and such favorite locations as romantic Venice , nearby Verona, Firenze,..the fashion capital Milano,..the Amalfi Coast, Naples or especially Sienna in Toscana not to mention the popular islands of Sardinia and Sicily,… so these days the expectations of most Australians,.. when it comes to “vino e gastronomia Italiano”… are exceedingly high!

If it is not professionally presented and authentic -forget it!..and fortunately for Canberra,…there is at least one such Italian restaurant that “actually raises the bar” and that is Agostinis located at the  East Hotel! (see https://www.connoisseurmagazine.com.au/2019/07/08/4091/)

The proprietors of this “gastronomic temple”  are the Bisa family,…and the restaurant reflects the Bisa’s love of Italian food and culture, as well as complementing the East Hotel.

As a matter of fact .the restaurant is named in homage to their mother Marisa, whose family owned a restaurant in Northern Italy bearing the family name of Agostinis, before migrating to Australia in the 1930’s.

In design terms,..the materials used in the restaurant have been lifted from and inspired by the geologically complex region of Friuli Venezia, the Agostini family homeland in northern Italy, which is known as limestone, dolomite and marble country. The limestone marble counter that runs the length of the open kitchen is veined with dolomite, whilst the copper light installations hanging above the entrance from the hotel lobby are complete with dolomite counterweights.

The stonework feature wall was inspired by the cobbled streets of Marisa’s home-town of Prato Carmico with gold highlights representing glints of alpine sun refracting off the rough limestone.

It is clear that the Bisa’s wanted to create a restaurant in Canberra that would be warmly inviting for all, with a relaxed sophistication and a touch of playfulness, serving classic Italian food done to perfection. The continuation of the close relationship with Chef Francesco Balestrieri was as vital as his exuberance, style and pure love of authentic Italian cooking has seen Agostinis ‘little brother’, Joe’s Bar, become one of Canberra’s favorites and seen him develop a devoted following.

Chef Francesco  Balestrieri overseeing the preparation of the gigantic Bistecca alla Fiorentina on the grill

Agostinis is an Italian family restaurant serving authentic regional cuisine made with love.

Fresh pasta made daily… pizzas piping hot from the state-of-the-art Marana Forni pizza oven and home-made gelato!

Irrepressible Romano Chef Francesco Balestrieri impressed with his style of exceptional Italian cuisine at Joe’s Bar, always prepared with love and laughter, and He now leads the 15 person kitchen team at Agostinis where “his menu is a celebration of simple authenticity, prepared to perfection.”

Pasta is freshly made to order in casa  and Agostini’s pizzas are created in the open kitchen using the freshest ingredients and a special Neapolitan artisan technique where the pizza dough naturally rises for 72 hours before going into the state-of-the-art rotating Marana Forni pizza oven.

Imported from Verona, Italy, it is the only one of its kind in Canberra and is capable of cooking 15 pizzas at one time.

The menu is inspired by the traditional cuisine of Northern Italy, with dishes such as Agostinis Antipasto OriginaleVeneto salame, San Daniele prosciutto, Black Pepper Mortadella, Treccia mozzarella, olives & sourdough, and Frico– (based on Marisa Bisa’s own recipe), this is a typical dish from the Friuli region of Italy, with paper-thin layers of Montasio cheese & potato, oven-roasted to form a heavenly, crunchy, chewy morsel.

Other popular items on the Menu include Paccheri Salsiccia di Maiale,a tube-shaped pasta with Italian pork, fennel & chili sausage slow-cooked with tomato sugo,.. and Cotoletta Alla Milanese– parmesan and thyme crusted 250gm veal cutlet served with a fennel and cabbage Insalata.

The Bistecca alla Fiorentina, for 2-3 people to share is the house specialty! This classic 1kg aged T-Bone is prepared simply with salt and rosemary, grilled to medium-rare and left to sit and contemplate before being served with roast potatoes & a medley of mustard, horseradish and salsa verde butter.

Then, of course, there are the Pizzas, created by the specially trained ‘pizzaiolo’s’, which have been designed in the traditional Italian style with fewer ingredients working in absolute harmony on the light and airy base. Groups can enjoy the one-meter long “Mama Miapizza” with a selection of three toppings.

It is recommended to reserve space for the creations of the dedicated ‘pasticcere’ such as the Maritozzo con Gelato– freshly made brioche bun served warm, filled with vanilla & chocolate gelato or Agostinis’ Tiramisu savoiardi biscuits, freshly brewed coffee, mascarpone, and chocolate mousse.

Seasonal Additions-The Winter Menu

Arriving as I did on a winters evening in late June,.. I  had a glass of NV Dal Zotto Prosecco King Valley, Victoria but have previously been tempted by the delicious cocktails... and recently had the Aperol Spritz – Aperol, (with prosecco, soda and Aperol),..Delicious and oh so refreshing!

Generally speaking, I am not really big on Cocktails,.. but I know they have some very good ones,..including such choices as Negroni, Campari, Americano etc.,

I would have preferred a glass of my favorite Italian bubbly,.. which is the NV Ferrari Maximum Brut DOC  Trento, Italy (or the equally good ROSE Brut) of which I consumed a magnum or two at the Salvatore Ferragamo 80th Anniversary  Bash in Firenze several years ago!

The Chef,  Francesco as many chefs prides himself on phis adherence with provenance and adapting to the seasons and this involves him in sourcing the best ingredients available during every season…so as mentioned at the start of this article-  I was going to experience some dishes from the new Winter menu!

,…I must confess that whilst Francesco got distracted in the kitchen giving directions to his team,…I  elected to defy his carefully hosted and choreographed presentation,…as  “I was really hanging out for some Chilli”,…so while he was distracted I befriended one the young and enthusiastic waiters,..( a pleasant and friendly ANU Political science student ) and in a somewhat rambunctious mood,.. I ordered a Chilli Pizza,. namely the spicy pizza Diavola with Spicy salami, black olives, chili, and  Fior di Latte mozzarella. I am told that they have 13 different Pizzas on the menu,..and as something of an opinionated Pizza expert,.. I would have to say it was a  great crust, and pretty much a Roman-style pizza.

I was tempted to order the Calamari Fritti,..but thought better of it,.. because I have had that dish before,..and it was good. Calamari Fritti lightly fried calamari served with a roasted capsicum and chili aioli. 

For the main course,..I was going kind of vegetarian (for me anyway) Francisco had promised to show me this new seasonal Dish that he was showcasing for the Winter season,.. the magnificent Fettuccine Al Funghi Con  Tartufo was the “piece de resistance” for the evening,…

Whne all said and done  it was very good,..althogh perhaps the pungency of the Tartufo Nero was a little lacking (as the Truffles had just come into season)

Francesco explained and they would develop in intensity as the season went on,… Fair enough,…I suppose, The preparation of the homemade Fettuccine involved tossing the pasta with wild mushroom ragù, parsley, and white wine, .The pasta was then decorated with grated fresh truffles and some Porcini mushrooms,….and I must say it was very good and typically Italian,..

I have had some similar in Italy,..and reminded me of something I had seen in Carluccios Cookbook or on his television program! This particular dish was similar to many of the Classic Dishes in Carluccio’s lovely Cookbooks,… I was quite  a fan and regularly diner at Carluccios Restaurant chain,.. (when I was editing  Connoisseur Magazine in Londons Mayfair district). The food was far from excellent ,..but I had discovered that it was good valu for money in expensive London,. and I could imbibe some very good Italian wine,..such as Planeta, .from Sicilia .for around 6 pounds a glass which was an excellent value in London all things considered. I  remember once meeting the famous Stephen Spurrier Consultant Editor of DECANTER Magazine and the London based champagne expert and writer  Michael Edwards.. in the Kensington branch of Carluccio’s in the good old days before the GFC hit London in 2008.

I should add that on this occasion the dish was paired with quality white wine to complement the forest floor flavors of the ceps,…the  2017 Contessa Pecorino d’Abruzzo and it was a very good match indeed!

For Dessert, I had the Panna Cotta alla Pere,(Vanilla panna cotta served with pears lightly poached in grappa and amaretto crumble) and it was delicious,…but not sweet, as one expects.

 

 

There are some other Winter Dishes on the Menu,.Should you be inclined to consume something more suitable for carnivores,..then I suspect the Osso Buco (pictured below)  would be an excellent treat!

I guess if you have been skiing or doing some vigorous cycling around the Canberra Lake,.. then I would recommend this.  .I didn’t get a chance to try it,.. but did see it served and it looked quite delicious….It is something an Italian winter classic. Apparently, it is slow-cooked for 12 hours in white wine and parsley and served on a bed of creamy polenta -delicious and very hearty winter food!

 

 

 

 

 

From the Wine List

The carefully curated wine list at Agostinis has been designed not to overwhelm, but to provide the best Italian wine experience possible with a balanced array of varietals from all over Italy, alongside a few Australian favourites, including Beppo’s Blend, a blend of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera, (three great Italian varietals), made especially for Agostinis by local wine genius, Bryan Martin from Ravensworth Wines at Murrumbateman.

 

Of course “Curating a wine list is an incredibly difficult task involving sitting around with a bunch of wine buffs, sipping copious bottles and having to make tough decisions – in or out! So it is said in the Wine List and this is how the list at Agostinis was started, back in early 2017 and I would have to agree that it has continued to evolve and improve with some additional wines chosen to match the Winter Menu!

As the staff continues to indulge in this tough process, more wines need to be tested and given the tick or flick of approval.!? According to the wisdom of the Wine List Tasters,… “The gift of having an Italian restaurant in Canberra is being able to showcase the favorite local wines alongside those from the Motherland, Italy!”

I must agree that it is an excellent list and I am surprised at how many good Italian and Local wines have been included. On my last visit, I discovered another wine that speaks to me, the 2016 Giuseppe Campagnola Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC Veneto, Italy,..This is a great wine that I  used to import into the Baltic States in a previous career,…as a Wine Importer and Merchant in the Baltic city of Riga in the nineties! Now if you want to taste  lovely wintery and silky smooth red with savory notes (and you’re looking for a little Italian sophistication on the palate) You can’t go past the 2017 Lamura Nero D’Avola (Organic) IGTSicily, Italy which wine is available at Dan Murphy stores around Australia,..as well and I am a regular customer!

I also lenjoyed  the 2018 Clonakilla Canberra Region Chardonnay and the Helm Canberra District Riesling!

If you wish to complete the ritual of Italian Dining by courses ,…You could do worse then  finish with a Grappa e Digestive I would recommend the Nardini Riserva Grappa or if for a Lady I would suggest the Disaronno Amaretto! You will then be fully prepared to face a brisk post prandial walk around the Canberra Lake before bedtime!

See You at Agostinis soon!

 


About the author

Aksel Ritenis

Publisher and Custodian of the Sydney Times

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