When we first speak to Alberto Lounge co-owner Anton Forte a couple days before his new restaurant opens, he finds it difficult to pin down exactly what it’ll be like. “We’re not open yet, and even once we are, it’s a work in progress,” he says.
He’s one of the key figures behind some of the city’s best venues – Hubert, Frankie’s, Baxter Inn and Shady Pines – and his shiny new Italian eatery is filling the space the once mighty Italian Berta left when it shut. (Like it, the name Alberto is called after the tiny street it lives on.)
“We’ve learned that the way we think the venue’s going to be and the way people interact with it can be very different. We don’t want to lock things down too much,” says Forte.
What is certain is that with Forte’s Swillhouse Group behind the venture, and Hubert’s Dan Pepperell in the kitchen, Alberto is one of the most highly anticipated openings of the year.
It’s exciting because Pepperell will once again be cooking Italian food. His take on the genre at 10 William St was legendary, with the inventive chef consistently turning out some of the most interesting and tasty Italian food in the country.
Forte says Pepperell has a working list of about 80 dishes that are “wild and cool”. “It’s all definitely a playful approach to Italian cuisine … We’re paying homage to the Australian-Italian cuisine – those aspects of Italian food that Australians have really connected with.”
There will be dishes such as gnocchi cacio e pepe, trippa alla Romana (tripe Roman-style), macadamia panna cotta and house-made gelato. “It’s going to be pretty classic Italian in terms of how it looks and tastes,” Pepperell says. “Just not necessarily in how it’s prepared.”
For Forte and business partners Stefan (who's also his brother) and Toby Hilton, the decision to open an Italian spot was the result of what he calls a “perfect storm”.
“We found this great site that obviously used to be an Italian restaurant. Dan’s passion has always been Italian food. Stefan and myself, our heritage is Italian; our father emigrated when he was four and my mum’s parents were from Italy. Plus we just came back from a trip to Europe where we spent a lot of time eating in Italy.
“Italy, the cuisine and the whole style of dining, is in our blood.”
While the wine list tilts toward that country, with a respectable showing from Tuscany and Sicily, and a host of wines available by the carafe, Forte says we can expect the same broad approach to the drinks list that’s defined the other venues.
“It’s things we like: wine, beers, cocktails. Lots of whisky because we like whisky. We want the space to be as bar-y as it is restaurant-y; you can come and drink wine with your meal or just smash cocktails all night long.”
Like the menu, Forte finds the venue’s aesthetic difficult to define. “It’s our interpretation of a cool, ’70s Italian restaurant, but it’s modern too. It’s classic and homely, but … ‘groovy’ is a cheesy word, but is has a grooviness to it.”
Local artist Allie Webb continues her work with the group; she’s created a mural on the laneway wall you can see in the large glass windows that run across the back of the venue.
Alberto joins a growing list of high-profile openings in the northern corner of Surry Hills in the last 18 months, bumping shoulders with the likes of Poly and Chin Chin. The torrent of activity is a high tide that raises all boats says Forte.
“There’s nothing better than a precinct. The area doesn’t cannibalise itself; it’s good for everyone. I love being in this part of Sydney.”
And while others decry the current state of Sydney’s nightlife, Forte has no such concerns.
“Sydney is beautiful. There’s so much passion, care and love going into every venue that opens. The range of venues is so diverse and cutting edge. Honestly, it’s one of the best cities to eat and drink in the world.
“People can ‘ra ra ra’ about the lockout laws or whatever, but the city is fucking awesome. I’m so honoured to be a part of it.”
17–19 Alberta Street, Surry Hills
Mon to Thu 5pm–12am
Fri & Sat 12pm–12am