Maurice Terzini is the man behind Sydney restaurants to the rich, famous and blonde, Icebergs and North Bondi Italian Food, as well as Melbourne’s Giuseppe, Arnaldo and Sons (GAS). Terzini is not a man afraid to get his hands dirty. Just watch him work the room on a typical night in his new restaurant, Neild Avenue, in Rushcutters Bay: one minute he’s air-kissing models, the next he’s clearing plates. It’s like the man was genetically engineered to open restaurants. He never sits still. Ever. He’s like a hummingbird: an Italian hummingbird with a shaved head, a penchant for drop-pants, and an unerring sense of restaurant-craft.
Neild Avenue is more like North Bondi or GAS than the ’bergs in that it’s a huge, open space and the mod-Mediterranean menu is pitched in a style and price point where you could actually eat there more than once a month than once a year. And yet Neild is unlike anything else Terzini - nay, Sydney - has done before. An old tyre factory has been transformed into something resembling a half-finished movie set where two large, unfinished wood house frames are covered with canvases illustrated by Sydney artist Anthony Lister (see the example of his work pictured above). The houses are raised and lowered using a block-and-tackle. It’s a strange, complicated way to fill a room and create a sort-of intimacy. But Maurice Terzini is strange and complicated. And when you’re talking about a restaurateur with as close to a perfect success rate as you’ll find in Australia, you know there’s probably method in the madness.
The plan, according to Terzini, is to update the art every six months or so with either Lister adding to the canvases or other artists taking his place. At the moment, the walls are a sort of panel van-y pastiche of gothic lady centaurs and the like, but our favourite bit is the shark with a bloody mouth wearing a pair of wayfarers. And, as everybody knows, putting a pair of sunglasses on any animal instantly makes them cool. It’s a fact of life.
The rest of the room, which is more for lounging, drinking and snacking, includes a long bar perfect for single and paired-off diners. Banquettes under the huge windows overlook the Grammar school sporting grounds across the road. Long black Chesterfields run the length of the room while little tables and net metal stools provide spots for pre-dinner drinks and bar snacks. Try crisp, light, golden brown onion rings – they're probably the best example of the American trucker dish in town right now and definitely worth ordering over the chips, which, though hand-cut, are a little meh.
Such is the reputation of Terzini and head chef Robert Marchetti that the place has been packed from day one. The crew might be working out a few kinks on the floor but it’s a huge restaurant (seating over 200) so you can forgive a few lost drinks orders. And hey - they look great. The team are kitted out in uniforms by designer Kirrily Johnston. The gals wear white pinnies with white collarless shirts. The guys wear Terzini's own fashion label - Ten Pieces, in collaboration with Ian Nessick - of black bowties, white shirts and pants that look like hospital scrubs. Everyone’s whip-smart and friendly, even under duress.
Sure, you might start with a mixed drink, but there’s the wine list to consider. It’s nearly all sourced from NSW with a little bit of ACT thrown in. And there’s also some very reasonably priced wine on tap, by Ross Hill producers James Robson and Phil Kearney, fresh outta Orange in the central west. Nothing on tap costs more than $40 for a 750ml bottle (all the tap stuff is available in 375ml, 750 and 1.5l), and if you’ve bought a one-way ticket to Austerity Town, there’s a fairly respectable rosé for just $21. Or get a magnum for $42. Take that, $16 Martini!
Terzini and Marchetti are both keen on lighter, healthier eating, so you’ll see a lot more in the vegetable and pulse department than usual, which is good news for vegetarians. Go for the florets of cauliflower hugged in a crisp, skintight, cumin-rich batter. And get down with the charred bread, which is a bit like a puffy, plain, salted pizza crust. Don’t miss a serve of the crisp spinach arancini (that’s a deep-fried rice ball with a cheesy centre to youse), sitting on a spoonful of cucumber yoghurt and sprinkled with toasted wild rice.
"Hey! This is a step away from Marchetti’s usual breezy Italian fare! What’s going on?" We hear you cry. And we’ve gotta say, this move to embrace Greek and Turkish influences is an interesting one. So on one hand you might see the likes of ‘Roman style’ lamb chops - a juicy, Jurassic-sized chop ($7 each! Bargain!) served with a spicy, acid-forward sauce of cumin, tomato, capsicum and chilli. But then there’s kibbeh naya - chopped raw lamb mince mixed with burghul and tomato. Each plump sphere features a little indent filled with olive oil and it all sits on a baby cos lettuce leaf - eat it in one bite. Or how about half an eggplant baked down until it’s sweet and sticky, topped with slow-cooked pork ragu and melted cheese? It’s about the sexiest version of eggplant parm in town.
Then there’s the ’fake tabbouleh’ - a mix up of amaranth (an ancient Aztec grain), coriander, parsley, cucumber, fennel, tomato and a yoghurt curd dressed with a squeeze of lemon and crunchy deep fried shallots. Sadly, it’s a bit flabby and wet - we’d rather have the real thing. We’re not that taken with the locally made buffalo haloumi, either, which lacks all the salt, flavour and squeak we’ve come to expect and love from the semi-firm Cypriot cheese. It does come with three different types of mint, though. Speaking of mint, check out the little sink holes inlaid in the tightly packed tables - not only are they filled with knives and forks, North Bondi style, but they also sport old-school sandwich-shop shakers of sumac and dried mint leaves for DIY spicing.
The cultural mash-up doesn’t stop at dessert, folks. There are bomboloni - Italy’s answer to the doughnut - little UFO shaped pucks filled with whipped cream and a little apple-blossom jam. But it’s baked duck-egg custards we’re most in love with. These little guys are served warm, all rich and firm in a skin of flaky pastry. We’ll be going back for the ‘sweet pie’ just for the name alone.
Neild Avenue, for all the glamour, isn’t crazily expensive - you could get away with around $50-$60 a head for a few snacks and a bottle of wine on tap. Of course, there’s also the opportunity to spend big if that’s where you’re headed too. And that’s the joy of this brand new restaurant - you make your own party. Game on, Sydney.