Think about the perfect Italian dish. What ingredients appear on your plate? Something dressed in red and then decorated green. A cheese. A cream. Something in between. They are easy combinations to imagine because we've been trying to arrange and perfect them our entire lives. We've bought cookbooks. We've wrapped things in prosciutto. We've carefully ventured into delicatessens carrying all the coins but none of the clues. We've been tourists. Culinary adventurers. Dreamers, lovers, basil planters and parmesan collectors. We're exhausted. It's time to hang up our aprons and surrender together.
The next thing we should all do is meet up at the Piazza Mercato. If we can get a table that is. It's not that Newcastle's newest Italian restaurant isn't roomy. There are tables all over the place. From a private dining room upstairs you can circle around an internal balcony that is speckled with quiet, intimate nooks before veering off into a swanky cocktail bar. Or take the stairs down to ground level and wander past the open kitchen, snap up a glass of the Tenute Del Cerro chianti ($12.50) and then immerse yourself in the cosiest live performance space on Hunter Street.
It's roomy and yet intimate because its creator, restaurateur Alfonso Muras, has made it that way. He's imagined it all for you - a mercato and a piazza under the same roof. He hasn't just spent decades thinking about the perfect Italian dish. He's also thought about the best place to savour it in. Six years ago those thoughts bubbled into pillowy pizza bases at Napoli Centrale, his King Street venue. Soon after that it was creamy wisps of gelato at Popolo (now with three locations). Now it's all those things and more.
It's what we've been searching for and dreaming about. A deli in the daytime, a pasta haunt with tap beers, a wine bar with live music in the evenings. It's the perfect combination, arranged by Muras. Even the espresso is incredible. Yet the very best thing about the Piazza Mercato is that nothing you see or taste is particularly new at all. Like your memorable Italian meals, those dishes we've tried in vain to master at home, the elusive flavours we remember most exist in the richness of tradition. Fresh pasta and homely ingredients. Something red and something green. Something in between. It's so simple they hoisted it up their flagpole.
"I still believe you have to do what you know," Muras says. "I started cooking when I was a kid with my grandmother. I just got into the kitchen and got involved whenever I could. That's what I now want to bring to the table at the Piazza. All the things that remind me of the flavours I had when I was young. It's still the food I'm looking to cook at home. Pasta is such a universal product these days. Spaghetti bolognaise has almost become a traditional Australian dish. That really shows you how important pasta is in the panorama of gastronomy."
But of course it's not the bolognaise that the crowds have been lining up for at the Piazza. Most of us have moved on, perhaps reluctantly, to a kind of Italian cuisine that is bolder and more inventive. It's the kind of food that this place showcases with passion and an elusive kind of expertise.
Among an impressive array of fresh pastas on the menu is the Fusilli e broccoli ($23), a textured mess of pine nuts, anchovies and sultanas folded through florets of creamy, grainy broccoli. Another highlight is the Spaghetti funghi bianco ($25) which mixes parmesan and cream through sauteed onion and shiny, buttony porcini mushrooms. It's simple and amazing. As satisfying and as uncomplicated as a sweet and zesty vegan roquette salad with pears, walnuts and a subtle, honey Dijon dressing ($16).
An even simpler pleasure can be found in a bowl of warm, herby mixed olives ($12) or a plate of Zeppole ($12) - balls of dough drenched in a rich Napoletana after being gloriously deep fried into a delicious, crunchy oblivion. Or just be done with it and order a tiramisu ($8) - a dense cushion of creaminess that somehow floats on its own cloud of mascarpone. It looks easy. It isn't. We once thought we could make the same at home. Only now that we have the Piazza Mercato, we all know that we won't.