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Elizabeth Meryment reviews Italian institution Lucio’s

Sunday Telegraph

THE OTHER week I was having dinner at a venue that constitutes a restaurant these days – a place where you sit on stools and order your dinner at the counter. I guess it was fine, in its way, if pretentious and uncomfortable, but when it was over I experienced a terrible pang of homesickness.

The homesickness was for the restaurants of old, for places where you could ring and make a booking for a time convenient to you – 12.30pm at lunch, say, or 7.30pm at dinner – and where the staff were happy to see you, offered you a menu, then brought three courses and very good wine served in quality glassware.

When you finished, you felt not only fed but loved.

Then I remembered that these fabled venues of our past still exist – well, some do – it’s just that they’re not so hot any more and therefore don’t receive the same hype and hyperbole reserved for the newer crop.

Thinking all this, I felt an overwhelming urge to return to that grand Italian institution, Lucio’s, to reconnect with real dining.

And, as I walked through Lucio’s doors the following Friday, I heard words that nearly brought me to tears: “So good of you to come today! We’re so happy to see you!”

Even though I felt those words were just for me, they weren’t really – everyone who entered was treated with the same enthusiasm by owner Lucio Galletto or by his trusty sidekick Aldo Zibellini – a duo whose dedication to service should not just be recognised as gold-standard but as world class.

It’s a reminder that in an era where waiters are both scarce and quite often churlish, we diners should be grateful that someone, somewhere, still holds a candle for kind, intelligent service. And that somewhere is Lucio’s.

I had been meaning to come back to Lucio’s anyhow, for 2013 marks the restaurant’s 30th anniversary, a huge milestone in an industry where most crash and burn within one to five years.

Galletto and his wife Sally opened on January 18, 1983, taking over what had been a dud French restaurant, The Hungry Horse, and fashioning it on the restaurants of Lucio’s home province Liguria.

As a dining space of 2013, it is remarkably timeless and elegant, with, by day, bountiful light pouring through open windows, terracotta-tiled floors and cheerful yellow walls bursting with artworks that are freshly arranged each year. There are white tablecloths on tables perfectly set and fashioned.

Three chefs have reined in Lucio’s history, including the incumbent, a Kiwi, Logan Campbell, who oversees a menu that’s as high end as you can get in an Italian restaurant in Sydney.

The prices are high – mains are beyond $40 – but you can contain your spending by ordering pastas that are about $30 for a generous entree or $40 for larger bowls. Hang the expense anyway – we do, and still leave with change from $200. That’s value.

The menu is not a long list but it is amiably populated. Start with something like lightly-floured, flash-fried Hawkesbury school prawns with caper and cornichon aioli ($26), a dish as simple as it is perfect. Eat these sweet little prawns whole with the exemplary aioli. Insalata di polipo ($28), meanwhile, is a long, generous plate of thickly-sliced Western Australian octopus tentacle, beautifully tender, laced between watercress, mint, shaved cucumber and roast baby beets to create a deeply satisfying, light starter.

The handmade pastas include a dish that should be on Sydney’s culinary heritage register, given it has been on this menu since 1983 – tagliolini alla granseola ($32), or green noodles with blue swimmer crab. The pasta is suitably al dente, the crab luminous beyond a sweet, lusty tomato sauce.

The mains are refined but hearty restaurant versions of Italian peasant dishes – balsamic-roasted duck ($45) with kale and currents that’s full of rich, deep tannins and earthy flesh; or risotto with zucchini flowers and vongole ($42), spectacularly served at the table from a glittering copper pot.

And for dessert? Well, a slippery, luxe pannacotta ($17.50), today with fresh mandarin, at other times something else.

It’s heaven.

Is Lucio’s as cool or modern or cutting edge as elsewhere? No, it’s not. Thank goodness for that.

LUCIO’S – 8.5/10

47 Windsor St, Paddington

Phone 9380 5996

Web lucios.com.au

Food Italian

Open Tuesday-Saturday, lunch from 12.30pm, dinner from 6.30pm

Highlight The grand, old-fashioned service

Lowlight Well, it’s not as cool as someKids Footwear Online