05/11/2021

Lockdown Spawns Collab Between Chef Trio, Blending Italian Cooking With Asian Flavours

Editorial Team | Interviews

Three chefs have come out of lockdown swinging with a new pop-up concept that fuses traditional Italian cooking with Eastern ingredients and flavours.

Restaurants hold a special place in the hearts of their communities; not only as a place to exchange stories and ideas but also as a marketplace for businesses to trade goods and services. After all, a restaurant brings chefs together with producers and wholesale suppliers, creating exquisite dishes which are delivered to customers by the front of house staff to tables or by delivery drivers to doors.

Sagra epitomises this ideal, a beautiful brick building on a bustling corner in Sydney’s leafy Surry Hills. It’s a place that is firmly entrenched in the local neighbourhood. Its walls are lined with bottles of homemade vivid-yellow limoncello, tables are simply set with high-quality linens and windows open out drawing the tables curbside in true European fashion. Head chef and co-owner Andrea Sonnante was drawn to the venue for reasons like this. “It’s like a being welcomed into a nonna’s house,” he explains, and reminiscent of backstreet eateries in “Florence, Milan or Rome.”

“One of the most exciting things
to come out of lockdown was…”

Sagra pays homage to classic Italian fare with a menu that follows the seasons with a sharp focus on “quality over quantity.” With 50 seats, it is an intimate space that nods to old Italy in every corner. A bag of flour sits proudly here, a black and white photo of Italian laneway hangs there, while all around jars of pickled veg are displayed like priceless vases.

The menu is tight. Minty zucchini flowers and prosciutto with fried bread are side dishes inspired by the side streets of Venice. The antipasti selection favours items like char-grilled asparagus or bulbous burrata with seasonal delights like peas or broad beans. Pasta is made in house on an ancient-looking pasta maker and churns out pappardelle, tagliatelle, and tortellini by the kilo.

Menu items change as things go in and out of season, but Sonnante says customer favourites like the pappardelle and ragu “are always on the menu.” Sagra is a traditional style restaurant and it’s something that people have been drawn to but during the lockdowns, Sonnante had to transition away from the personal dine-in experience and look to takeaway and delivery to continue business operations. This enabled Sonnante to keep in touch with his customer but also provided some additional time and mental juice to think about potential new side projects.

“Innovation and working together
is extremely important.”

He says one of the most exciting things to have come out of lockdown is his pop-up concept Mannaggia a Trois, which he conceived of with two other chefs who have found it freeing to combine Sonnante’s Italian background with the Vietnamese Chinese heritage of Alex Wong, head chef of Lana Dining at Hinchcliff House and chef Hai Le. “I would say a quintessential Mannaggia a Trois dish would be a long pasta, seafood and a spicy Asian condiment,” states Wong.

During the lockdown, this experimental side hustle took various forms. It saw the team collaborate with Maison Coffee on ‘Mannaggia a Trois A Casa (at home)’, a take-home experience that included paired wines from Vino Mito Wine Imports. The menu included bagna cauda garlic bread, agnolotti pasta with smoked stracchino, porcini and XO sauce, and black sesame and dark chocolate torta. Now restaurant doors are open once more, the trio is excited to welcome a series of dine-in pop-ups too, the first of which is due to take place at Sagra on November 21.

“I believe in innovation and working together is extremely important,” explains Sonnante, who goes on to say that not only do collaborations such as this help to push their individual skills but that they also benefit from exchanging patrons too. “I get to know some customers that are coming from Alex and Alex gets to know some that come from my side. So, it’s always a winning situation because we get to learn from each other and to actually grow as a team.”

“Chefs have always shared information and recipes
but Covid has only increased this level of openness.”

Wong agrees. He says chefs have always shared information and recipes and that Covid has only increased this level of openness. “The days of competition I think are over. I have mates working across the road and other restaurants and we all share our information. Sometimes I need inspiration for a new dish, and I will take advice and I like to give the same information back if I can. I feel like working together is great.”

During a time where restaurants seem to have lost some momentum, Sonnante and Wong have managed to get to a place where they have supercharged their ideas and feel more able to execute them than ever before. Not only have they taken Sagra into new spaces and territories, but they have also invented a brand that can operate as a kind of testing kitchen for ideas that may not make the menus of their own restaurant kitchens. This means more options, more choice and more fantastical food for customers going into 2022 and beyond.

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