Even when your best-laid plans go awry, sometimes you can end up with the most brilliant night anyway.
We hadn't meant to eat dinner at Pizza e Birra. Our sights (and stomachs) had been set on Vini and we'd arrived early to secure a table. Too early, we soon discover, and we're directed across the road for a quick drink while they finish setting up.
Arancini $3 each
We wander up Gladstone Lane and find ourselves in a tiny bar, the glass doors simply marked with Cantina and Enoteca in a large frosted font. There is little indication that we're actually at 121 BC, the latest venture by the owners of Vini and Berta wine bars.
The bar is long but narrow, taken up primarily by a wide tile-topped communal table tucked under with stools. The table is wide enough so that the people opposite can't quite reach your wine glass, but as the bar quickly fills, it soon feels like we're at one giant dinner party - maximum guests: 25.
Zucchini, ricotta $8
The blackboard menus change daily, and detail the available wines and dishes of the evening. All the wines here are Italian, with white wines listed on the left, reds on the right. There are twenty-one wines are available by the glass when we visit, and the 100ml serving size makes for casual sipping and room to explore. The wines are reasonably priced too, starting at $5.50 and topping out at $13. Most hover around the $6 to $8 mark.
We start with a couple of pre-dinner snacks. Arancini balls arrive on a rustic wooden paddle, spoonfuls of creamy risotto coated in a light but crunchy golden crust. There's also room for a plate of grilled zucchini strips, sweet and yielding against the dabs of fresh ricotta.
By the time we leave at 6.30pm, 121 BC is packed. Hopeful arrivals are resigned to camp out by the door. Of course when we arrive at Vini, we find the restaurant is full and there's now a 30-minute wait for a table. We're merry with wine by this point and head up Foveaux Street instead. The hill is steep but we know we need the headstart on the calories.
Pizza e Birra, Surry Hills
Pizza-making in the window of Pizza e Birra
There's plenty of activity happening on Crown Street, but thankfully we manage to snag one of the last available tables at Pizza e Birra.
Olive ascolana $7
We started with stuffed green olives, deliciously salty in a shell of deep-fried breadcrumbs. The benefits of any hillwalking have already been negated.
There are seven pasta dishes on the menu and we choose the gnocchi beetroot. It's a lot spicier than we expected, with a chilli afterburn that seems to detract from the sweetness of the beetroot. The gnocchi are a brilliant ruby in colour, and although soft, they feel a little soggy.
Pizza Sicilia $23
Mozzarella, fried eggplant, fresh ricotta and smoked provola
Choosing our pizza is much more difficult, with over twenty options listed. We're torn over the zuccafunghi with pumpkin and pine nuts and the with mushrooms and gorgonzola, but eventually settle on the Pizza Sicilia that includes fried eggplant and fresh ricotta.
Pizza Sicilia and pizza upskirt action
The fried eggplant delivers on its promise: deep-fried cubes that are wondrously sticky and sweet. Only a light layer of topping keeps the pizza slices quite floppy, but the beauty is all in the crust. Throughout our dinner I'd been transfixed by the pizza oven, a roar of flames crackling over wood as pizza after pizza was slid in on a paddle.
We paused to admire the pizza maker on our way out, using his fingers to push out the dough into perfect circles before tossing it in the air.
Dessert? I say to Miss Veg, and as we trip down the street I mention how long it's been since I've had a dosai at Maya Masala.
Masala dosai $9.90
I. Am. A. Terrible. Influence.
We walk the few blocks to Maya Masala and even as we look at the trays of silver-foiled burfi, the bright orange carrot halva and syrup-soaked gulab jamun, all we can think about is dosai.
We're already laughing at our gluttony, and although it takes about 20 minutes for our dosai to arrive, it's worth the wait. The folded crepe is ridiculously crispy, audibly crunchy from each end to its centre.
Potato masala dosai has always been my favourite, the texture and flavour of the spiced potato working so well against the sour tang of the crepe. The dollop of potato has a surprise bonus - pan-fried again so the edges are crispy.
We leave nothing but crumbs on the plate, although I was tempted to finish those too.
MasterChef Australia Season 3 kicks off this Sunday 7.30pm on Channel 10 and ChocolateSuze will be hosting a live MasterChef chat during every episode. Head to http://www.chocolatesuze.com/chat and join in the fun with a heap of Aussie food bloggers. And go TEAM BILLY!
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4/29/2011 03:23:00 am