On a day many years ago when I was not more than seven years old, I ended up at my father’s work in the city.
At lunch, my dad took me by the hand and we walked to the nearby CBD. It was the sixties and building sites were everywhere. We entered a concrete carpark next to a highrise building site. Four large trestle tables greeted us along with a number of happy Italian mammas, lovingly stirring colossal bubbling pots of pasta with red sauces enough to swim in.
Sitting on each makeshift table were splendid bowls of freshly baked crusty bread, some bowls filled with plain lettuce, tomato and fresh basil. A table held two large urns of cordial with cups all in a row.
Everything here was included in the small cost of a plate of food. That day I had my cheek squeezed many times by large women – and some men too; the warmth of these people was something I hadn’t experienced anywhere outside of my own family.
They jokingly called it the ‘No Names Ristorante’. The diners here were predominantly the Italian migrant workers doing the jobs Aussies needed doing or wouldn’t do. While their culture, generosity and warmth weren’t understood or fully appreciated at this time (apart from my dad and me) it is well loved now.
Italian cuisine is highly regarded on two fronts – for comfort food and for the quality eclectic creations inspired by the regions north to south in this part of the Mediterranean.
I ate in Basiloco, a new restaurant in Byron Bay, recently and found the memories of this natural Italian hospitality flooding back to me.
Frankie Brown’s used to occupy this spot; now it’s a completely different place. New owners, Manuel and Norma Agus, are Sardinians, passionate exponents of Italian cuisine and Italiano hospitality from the kitchen to the front of house.
They admit they’ve lived in Mexico for many years, and for me this means more culinary experience they bring to their new ristorante.
This may sound like yet another Italian joint. It’s not; it has much more to it. A voguish bar and fabulous cocktails. Food to die for, casual and lovely service (not that the service is casual, but the waiters are mostly Italian, with a manner that suits a discourse on food, drink and hospitality).
Here I found a balance of Italian cuisine that takes in Sardinian specialities, authentic Italian plates, a tapas $5–7 menu by day; all at the equivalent of most pub pricing. I don’t always gamble, but my prediction is this: soon, you’ll find booking a seat at Basiloco on a Friday or a Saturday a not-so-easy Italian affair.
‘When you gotta goat, you gotta goat’
The last time I sacrificed a goat for my dinner was in the Mezzaluna, in Potts Point, Sydney. This is a well-heeled Italian restaurant and though the goat was good, it didn’t come near Basiloco’s slow-cooked goat.
Here they serve it spicy with chilies and house-made polenta chips. I’m a little long in the tooth so the chips were the only things I left behind (too hard on my teeth). The goat was melt-in-the-mouth and sensational. A plate of house-made gnocchi was excellent, served with a subtle gorgonzola sauce, flecked with walnuts and rocket leaves for garnish.
Afters? A dessert that’s close to the best panna cotta I’ve had; sharp citrus bursts cut through the rich, delicate vanilla moulding.
Head chef Mirko Rubino’s cooking style has a family feel to it – Sicilian and southern Italian influences with lively and strong flavours the likes of basil, good olive oils, and classic Italian dishes. He was born in Milan, grew up in the northern region but with a strong family connection to Sicily down the deep south, so the best of both worlds is found on the menu here.
‘The kitchens are different in the north of Italy but I always allow the southern influences to come through my dishes. Using the awesome fresh local products available here, including goat, which is normally frozen – it’s fresh from the farm here.
‘We’re also building a cuisine that’s close to the Sardinian style of kitchen and flavours including Fregola, a typical Sardinian pasta,’ Mirko told me.
Another famous Sardinian speciality sold here is the suckling pig, though I’m thinking this dish may bring with it some issues given our area’s broad dietary politics.
Sometimes I feel that a good recommendation can be fraught with problems, the ability of the eatery to repeat the good experience I’ve had for one. Here though, I think the Italians’ culture of warmth and hospitality will carry this recommendation through to a new diner should Murphy’s Law come uninvited.
Licensed. Open 11am to 6pm. Dinner 6pm to 10pm, Wednesday to Monday. Live music 7pm to 9pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 10pm. 30 Lawson Street, Byron Bay Booking: 6680 8818 Email [email protected], www.basilo.co, www.facebook.com/basilocobyronbay.