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Via Valdarno

What is it that makes a restaurant popular? Importantly, what is it that makes one man’s cuisine another man’s dyspepsia?

These themes were being batted around the ancient walls of Sean Mullen’s flat as we sipped our way through a generous slug of post-prandial bourbon and hunkered down for a late night chew of the fat.

Sean, it must be said, is a man with rare insight into food and wine. A native New Yorker and the only priest I have ever met who can whip up a supper of daube à la provencale and souffle, Sean is prone to wax rhapsodic about the Dean & Delucca cookbook, the chocolately mouth-feel of Salitage cabernet merlot and a million other topics across the sweeping panoply of food and wine. (It’s true, Anglicans do have more fun).

We were discussing these weighty matters following a visit to a small, local Italian restaurant in, of all places, Dalkeith.

Trattoria Valdarno had been recommended to me by Perth business identity (and more recently olive oil entrepreneur – look out for his terrific Kallamar Olive project at a financial adviser near you) Peter Walker.

Peter says Valdarno is one of the great secrets of the Dalkeith/Claremont set, who pack it out each night in their well-heeled droves.

His entreaty: “Don’t review it, Rob, otherwise everyone will know about it” was an inducement rather than a discouragement.

When Sean and I entered the brightly lit shopfront just off Waratah Avenue, we were greeted by the agreeable hustle of a family local and by a sign which read: SORRY, CREDIT CARDS NOT ACCEPTED.

Panicked, we both began patting our pockets looking for spare cash. To a casual observer we must have looked like two Austrian folk dancers slapping their lederhosen.

There is little doubt the Valdarno owners have created a homely local tratt. It feels as if a friendly neighbourhood dinner party is in progress.

The service is straightforward: friendly without being effusive. The food revolves around the spag bol/chicken tortellini (in a cream sauce)/calamari/scaloppine range of favourites and offers nothing challenging or new, which is exactly what its devotees find so pleasing.

One suspects the Valdarno customer would no sooner seek out a timbale of thrice-roasted Argetinian capsicums with a Swiss chard gremolata than roll an aspro to Sydney.

This is uncomplicated food for uncomplicated people.

The gnocchi in a spicy pork and tomato sauce ($13.00) was an enormous entrée serve. The sauce was as advertised. The fried sausage mince tossed through the sauce was, well, spicy and porky. The little gnocchis were marvellously light and proof positive that light hands make light gnocchi. (It’s all about glutens you see: If a chef gives his glutens too strenuous a workout, they pucker up and become tough)

The tortellini panna e funghi ($12.00) would have stopped Kim Beazley in his tracks. It was a huge serve. There was nothing wrong with it either.

A special of osso bucco ($18.00) was again hearty, although the cooking was probably a little hasty. Instead of the gluey, fall-apart consistency that can only come from long, slow, protein-breaking cooking, the veal meat was stringy and chewy. All in all, though, the Valdarno kitchen got the flavours just right. The sauce was rich and well-balanced.

Sean said it was virtually cold when it arrived.

My cotoletta ($14.00) was disappointing. The veal escalope was tough. The accompanying rice was undercooked and cold. The serve was big, though.

Dessert is from a refrigerated display and consists mostly of cakes and biscuits.

We had coffee, which was terrific.

There is something rather comforting about Valdarno. The food is what mother would make, which is to say it is nice but not

memorable.

But Valdarno is more than a mere food experience. It captures the very essence of something that is quite rare in Australia, but almost epidemic in places like New York: the neighbourhood restaurant where plain, simple food is the catalyst for people to come together and break bread together, rather than the other way around.

So, what makes a popular restaurant?

Many things. Food plays a role but, for some restaurants, making the customer feel a part of something simple, easy, uplifting and engaging is important.

It’s an ownership thing.

“This is our restaurant” customers like to say – which is exactly what Valdarno has managed to create.

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