What: Lillino’s Bar & Pizzeria
Where: 136 Talga Road, Rothbury
Prices: Antipasti, $12 to $20; pasta, $26 to $30; secondi (mains), $34 to $38; contorni (sides), $8.50; pizzas, $18 to $22; dolci (desserts), $12.50 to $18.50; degustation menu, $96 per person
Chef: Federico Congiu
Wines: St Clement’s Estate Winery wines, all by the glass
Hours: Dinner, Thursday to Tuesday; lunch, Thursday to Sunday
Bottom line: Entree, main, dessert about $130 for two without drinks
Wheel chair access: excellent from the car park
Italian regional food is well represented in Newcastle and the Hunter, but one area not so well known is the island of Sardinia, north-west of Sicily and just south of French Corsica; which makes it all the more surprising to find a Sardinian and his Australian wife growing grapes, making wine and producing authentic Sardinian cuisine among the gum trees at Rothbury.
Sardinia is an island, albeit a large one, so its cuisine would have to feature seafood wouldn’t it? Well no ... most primary production faces firmly inland. The most well-known and traditional dishes come from the island’s rugged interior and are sheep and pig based; sheep’s milk pecorino, suckling pig, roast and grilled lamb.
On the other hand, some seaside towns are known for their excellent lobster, squid, fish and mussels and Lillino’s kitchen reflects this. And then there’s bottarga, the prized dried tuna, swordfish or grey mullet roe, which lends a special touch when shaved over pasta. But, it’s becoming increasingly rare and the quality is not always the best, so it’s off the menu at the moment.
An amuse bouche of silky, textured tuna tartare, infused with lemon zest, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and supporting a small grissini is just the thing to wake the palate.
The formaggio arrosto is an antipasto you really must try. Finely sliced pear and garden rocket leaves have been sandwiched between two wafers of firm but not hard pecorino which has been grilled until golden and crisp on the outside but melting in the middle, then drizzled with honey. Simple but superb.
Kulurjones is traditional Sardinian ravioli. The silky house-made pasta encloses mashed potato, pecorino and mint. A light tomato sugo (sauce) and more grated pecorino complete another deceptively simple dish.
Don’t confuse porcetto (roast milk-fed suckling pig) with porchetta, the boned stuffed whole pig, spit roasted and filling panini, everywhere in Italy. Lillino’s porcetto is sourced locally and roasted until spoon tender, the crackling crisp and crunchy and the meat falling off the bone. Very good sauté potatoes and a serving of caponata come with the main, so you may not need any extra side dishes.
The dolci list includes tiramisu, pineapple carpaccio, poached pear and a saffron-infused semifreddo, but I can’t resist the delightfully named nuraghe. This playful moniker recalls the mysterious, prehistoric stone dwellings scattered across the island but in reality is a molten-centred chocolate fondant pudding served with the house-made gelato of the day – in this case, vanilla bean. You will need to wait 10 minutes extra for this but it’s worth every second.
For those with less time, or for a more casual lunch, you can’t go past the pizza menu. It’s a pineapple-free zone; tomato, mozzarella, pecorino, hot salami, chilli, mushrooms, rocket and gorgonzola rule. All on thin, crisp bases.
And while you’re waiting there’s the view, right across the bowl-shaped valley to Mount View far on the other side.