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“Just two people found us on the first night,” says Italian chef Stefano Manfredi of his first restaurant, which opened 32 years ago on Harris Street in Sydney’s Ultimo neighbourhood. “But they were an elegant couple.”

Manfredi opened his eponymous venture at the age of 28 and was in a small group of chefs working to introduce their beloved northern-Italian cuisine to Sydney. With then-wife and current business partner Julie Manfredi-Hughes, the Italian chef’s reputation has quietly grown allowing him to build a low-key but respected series of restaurants that currently numbers five.

Several dishes from the earliest menus still appear in his restaurants. Some are in their original form, such as the tortelli di zucca; it’s stuffed with pumpkin and served with burnt butter and parmesan. Other dishes have been updated and refined, such as the barbecued duck with balsamic vinegar and roast suckling lamb with rosemary potatoes.

Manfredi was born in Brescia, Italy and moved to Australia at six. He began cooking as a child beside his mother and grandmother. “In 1983, when we opened our first restaurant, I felt as though it was the beginning of a new cuisine – ‘modern Australian’. There were new varieties of potatoes, salad leaves and mushrooms suddenly available here. Cheese-makers were producing interesting cheeses that weren’t cheddar. It was revolutionary for Australia, which until then had pretty much subsisted on British ingredients.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manfredi and his business partner expanded their reach, continuing to open restaurants rooted in the chef’s love of simple Italian cuisine. “Tradition and heritage are important but so is responding to what is around you,” he says. “It is essential to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things and it helps to give a real sense of place to the food and to the dining experience.”

Manfredi and Manfredi-Hughes opened their second venue – Bel Mondo, overlooking Sydney Harbour – in 1996 (later sold), then Manfredi at Bells in 2007 and low-key Balla in 2011. In November last year he opened the casual Pizzaperta in Pyrmont – close to the site of his original restaurant, which closed in 1996. The recently refurbished Pretty Beach House in Bouddi National Park offers accommodation alongside Manfredi’s cuisine.

Now in his sixties, Manfredi can still be seen rushing between his kitchens. He also finds time to write: his recipe column in the The Sydney Morning Herald was published for some 20 years. More recently, he has turned his hand to books. His latest, Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Food, is a love letter to Italy, exploring its wines, culinary history and recipes.

Characteristically, Manfredi’s enthusiasm for the cuisine that drives his businesses continues unabated. “I’m excited by Sicily and Sicilian food at the moment,” he says. “I love Catania, the people, the culture, the markets – it is a city I could live in. The produce is so rich – due to the incredible volcanic soil – and the island’s cuisine has evolved as a result of its history. Constant invasion means it’s a melting pot of influences.”

After more than three decades in the kitchen, Manfredi remains as inspired and committed as ever. “I feel like we are at the beginning of a new phase with my restaurants Balla, Pizzaperta and Bells. All are authentic and traditional but from a more modern point of view.”

Recipe 1 - Carciofi tappati (Stuffed artichokes)

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 350ml tomato passata
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 artichokes
  • ½ lemon
  • 60g cup day-old bread, without crust, chopped
  • 50g sultanas
  • 3 tbsp grated parmesan
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt and pepper

The method

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in pan and fry garlic and onion until soft.

  2. Add passata, paste and salt, then stir. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes.

  3. Remove the outer leaves of artichokes. Cut off top quarter to reveal layers and the heart. Remove stem. Rub the exposed cut leaves with the lemon, squeezing some juice into the heart.

  4. Mix bread, sultanas and parmesan with olive oil, then season. Fill artichokes with the mixture. Dip the tops of each artichoke into beaten eggs.

  5. Heat 6 tablespoons of oil in pan; sear egg-dipped side. Turn the artichokes over and add salsa until it almost covers the artichokes.

  6. Simmer gently for 1 hour. Garnish with salsa and serve.

Recipe 2 - Sarde a beccafico (Sicilian-style roast sardines)

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 16 sardine fillets
  • 2 onions
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 80g sultanas
  • 50g pine nuts
  • 80g caciocavallo cheese
  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh bay leaves
  • 2 tsp of caster sugar
  • 2 lemons

The method

For the stuffing:

  1. Dice onions and garlic. Mix with sultanas, pine nuts, cheese and breadcrumbs. Add olive oil to bind mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

  2. Stuff the fillets and roll them lengthwise. Fix 4 fillets per skewer with 1 bay leaf between each.

For the dressing:

  1. Whisk sugar, lemon juice and 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.

  2. Place the skewers in a baking dish and spoon on the dressing.

  3. Bake in a pre-heated 200C oven for 10 minutes, then serve.

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