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Nico in Cammeray is a good place to hibernate this winter with aperitivi, focaccia and seafood.

Terry Durack

14.5/20

Italian$$

There’s one particular mood-altering substance everyone should take in winter, and that’s lemon. The tang and bitterness wake up the tastebuds, and the sunny colour lifts the mood in an instant. It’s why chefs use it so much, to add contrast, acidity and surprise.

Which makes Nico in Cammeray a good place to hibernate this winter.

Nico Ronconi has always worked in big Italian restaurants, previously heading Fratelli Fresh and Matteo’s Downtown, so he’s had plenty of time to work out what he’d like to do with his own, smaller, place.

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Hokkaido scallop carpaccio, pickled fennel, orange, finger lime.
Hokkaido scallop carpaccio, pickled fennel, orange, finger lime.James Brickwood

In many respects, Nico is just the sort of neighbourhood Italian you want in your own neighbourhood. But there’s a difference. Ronconi and business partner Ewa Witkowska have adopted the Amalfi Coast and all things bright, sunny and lemony to inform the menu.

“We didn’t want to be just another Italian restaurant,” Ronconi says.

From the very inviting Amalfi negroni ($21) of limoncello, Malfi lemon gin, vermouth bianco and Campari that opens the meal, to the lemon sorbet ($6) that could potentially finish it, flavours are bright and zesty.

If it isn’t lemon, it’s tangy finger lime and pickled fennel that perks up a fat Hokkaido scallop ($11), sliced carpaccio-style as a starter. Another starter is deep-fried ricotta fritella ($6), the soft and springy oval striped with creamy (lemony) gremolata and a plump salted anchovy.

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Nico is one of five restaurants in and around Cammeray Plaza, and you enter from the plaza side opposite Harris Farm, rather than the street. “Buona sera,” calls Ronconi, from the dramatically dark and theatrical open kitchen.

Giant Designs has created an interior of coastal blues and tans that still manages to feel warm, furnished with three long banquettes, wicker-backed chairs, solid bare wooden tables and a bottle-backed bar.

Pork cotoletta, Calabrian sauce.
Pork cotoletta, Calabrian sauce.James Brickwood

Local couples and foursomes are drinking wine and checking out the menu of aperitivi, focaccia, seafood and house-made pasta.

Pasta is a real drawcard, and there’s a winter-friendly special on Tuesdays of selected pasta dishes with a glass of wine for $29 that pulls a crowd. But this isn’t Tuesday. Tonight, there’s gigli, a ruffled bell-shaped pasta served with a sausage ragu ($36), or spaghetti with WA’s Donnybrook marron (listed as “wild-caught” but later confirmed as farmed), saffron and basil ($55).

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My calamarata (so-called because it is shaped like cut sections of squid) is dressed with identical cut sections of South Australian squid ($37) in a wine-based sauce popping with sun-dried cherry tomatoes. I like that it’s not militantly al dente, and that the squid ends up curling up inside the pasta hollows, as if seeking family.

Floor staff are lively and know their stuff, and wine is taken seriously. A glass of the 2021 Le Monde Chardonnay from Friuli ($18/$85) is fresh, intense and well-balanced.

Lemon tiramisu.
Lemon tiramisu.James Brickwood

In spite of the Amalfi theme, Ronconi was born in the north, in Vicenza, so a few more wintry dishes have crept in as well. Smoked mafaldine (ruffled flat pasta lengths) comes with a creamy mushroom sauce ($35) capped with a taleggio fonduta (like cheese fondue). The mix of king, oyster, shimeji and enoki mushrooms works well, although I would love to see the promised wild mushrooms in there.

A salad of radicchio with pomegranate and chives ($14) has a velvety dressing of balsamic vinegar, mustard and pomegranate molasses with a real bite to it. It adds interest to a main course of pork cotoletta ($39). Crisply crusted, sliced into fingers and striped with wiggles of Calabrian sauce (capsicum, tomato and chilli) it gets a bit same-same to eat, with not much give in the meat.

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But now it’s straight back to the Amalfi by private jet with Ronconi’s lighter, brighter tiramisu ($15). Sponge finger biscuits are soaked in limoncello syrup instead of coffee, and rich mascarpone cream is showered with grated white chocolate and lemon zest. Like Nico, it’s a fresh take on the familiar, injected with extra tang.

The low-down

Vibe: Upscale neighbourhood Italian with house-made pasta

Go-to dish: Calamarata, squid, sun-dried tomatoes, white wine, $37

Drinks: Italian-leaning cocktails and a thoughtful wine list (with 50 per cent off bottled wine on Mondays)

Cost: About $145 for two, plus drinks

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Terry DurackTerry Durack is the chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and Good Food.

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