Bowral’s Little Sicily
Escape SH samples impressive contemporary Italian cuisine in an unlikely location.
At 34 Jonatan Fontecchio, head chef and owner of Eccetera Trattoria Pizzeria in Bowral, is a young man with retirement already in his sights.
‘I started at cooking school at 15, got my own restaurant when I was 28, and always said to myself that when I am 40 I will stop,’ he says. ‘Running your own restaurant is very hard work but you need to do that in this game to see the money.’
The mention of money has him rubbing together his forefingers and thumb in the classic Italian way.
‘One day, though, I want to have a life, too.’
It’s plain to see that Eccetera, a charming little bolthole in the middle of Bowral that often does up to 80 covers a night, takes up all of Jonatan’s time. It’s 7pm on a midweek night and the joint is pumping. There are people waiting to collect their woodfire takeaway pizzas cooked by fellow Italian chef Marco, and at a table near the front door three mothers and their five young kids tuck into pasta. Inside, every table, covered in brown paper, is full. Young and old, families and friends, lovers, and strangers, it is alive with chatting and eating. Like the best Italian feast.
An attentive young waiter seats us with a cheery Buona sera! (good evening), a delicious glass of chilled Italian prosecco and a plate of olives, bread and balsamic oil. We look around. On the counter, jars of Eccetera’s homemade orange and apple jam, and bottles of its chilli oil and balsamic vinegar sit for sale. A large map of Sicily hangs on the far wall.
Jonatan was born and grew up in Palermo, the island’s southwest capital and port city, founded in 734 BC. It was once part of the Roman Empire, and then the Byzantine Empire for more than 1000 years. Rich in history, culture, art and music, Palermo also has its own distinct gastronomy, with Italian, Spanish, French and Arab culinary influences. The city is also famous for its ancient open air fish market, La Vucciria. Eccetera’s menu, set out in the Italian courses of antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolce, is inspired by Palermo, and Jonatan sources many ingredients from Sicily.
‘We cook traditional Sicilian dishes that we want to be as authentic as possible,’ says Jonatan. ‘The pizza flour comes from Naples, the prosciutto from Parma, all our cheeses, tomatoes, sea salts and cured meats are from Italy.’
We are seated among terracotta coloured walls hung with baskets and chalkboards displaying the specials, and start with antipasti fritto misto cooked by sous chef Cicco. Calamari, prawns and zucchini dusted in flour, deep fried and served with homemade aioli and lemon. It is deliciously light and flavoursome. We also try sardines marinated in vinegar and then fried sardines Sicilian style. Like the carpaccio on the menu, they are a Palermo speciality. Super flavoursome, not fishy, and no bones because they melt away during cooking.
Jonatan grew up in a home where cooking was everything. His mother, Maria, was always the cook. Along with Jonatan’s father, Mario, Maria spends six months helping Jonatan in the restaurant and visiting his sister Irma in Melbourne, and six months in Palermo.
‘She gave me the bug, and the love of food,’ says Jonatan. ‘She was the starting point for me.’
The other inspiration was Giorgio Locatelli. Jonatan began working for the Michelin starred Italian chef in his London restaurant Locanda Locatelli in 2004. But after two years, Australia beckoned.
‘I worked with a dream to come to Australia to have my own restaurant,’ says Jonatan, ‘because I knew this is a country that loves Italian food and welcomes young chefs, and where if you work hard you can achieve.’
Jonatan arrived in Bowral in 2007 and worked with the restaurant’s former owners, Carmen and Antonio Esposito, originally from Naples. He bought and took over the running of the business in 2013. Jonatan added the pizza oven, got an alcohol license (although Eccetera is also BYO) and started making his own name.
‘I was here for many years helping them out before they decided to retire,’ explains Jonatan. ‘They thought of me as their son because they don’t have one, and they were happy to sell their business to me.’
Our primi dish, gnocchi al tartufo e funghi e crema di finocchio, proves the Espositos made a great decision. Truffle and mushroom gnocchi with a fennel puree and parmesan, it is a knockout. The punchy flavours of the truffles and mushrooms are balanced by the subtlety of the fennel puree, and the gnocchi melt in the mouth. We follow this star dish with ravioli of slow cooked braised beef, red wine, sage, hazelnuts and parmesan, which is beyond good. Then we finish with the classic Italian dessert, tiramisu.
It is a meal fit for a Sicilian king and queen, and is crowned beautifully with a chilled glass of limoncello, a lemon liqueur native to Southern Italy, zinging with bite. A local Highlands winemaker produces it exclusively for Jonatan, but he is not giving away any trade secrets. Which is a shame, because it is delicious. Happy and replete we thank Jonatan for his fabulous food and service, won over by the authenticity of Eccetera’s food.
Jonatan’s final words stay with me: ‘I still miss home. The smells, the flavours, the daily markets of Palermo. But Bowral gave me the opportunity as a young Italian chef to help change the way Italian cuisine exists in Australia. Many restaurants here base their ideas of Italian cooking on 1980s Italian food. We still do fine dining here but every day we are trying to make it contemporary, too, for a new generation.’
Bellissimo to that.
Eccetera Trattoria Pizzeria, 6 Boolwey Street, Bowral
Lunch Thursday-Saturday, 12.30-2.30pm
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5.30-9.30pm; Sunday 5.30-8.30pm.