I’m bilingual, speaking English and French, but I used to be a polyglot being able to speak Italian as well while attending University of Oregon–Go Ducks! Predominantly speaking French for several years now, my Italian has fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, I retained enough of the language to get me by, and one instance during a vacation in Australia, speaking even just a little bit of Italian opened up a remarkable restaurant experience in Sydney.
I would imagine like any remarkable experience there is a good amount of serendipity involved. One evening, my partner and I were walking along Oxford Street, near Darlinghurst, he spotted a meter long pizza coming out of a restaurant. We both gazed at it with wonder and a newfound hunger–we had just eaten dinner. The pizza was being paraded down the street by two people–fortunately, we were headed in the same direction. The pizza finally arrived at its destination just a couple of doors down at a gathering in a bar. My partner, André, turned to me and declared, “Faut qu’on essaie leur pizza!” We have to try their pizza. We subsequently turned around to pass by the pizza place so we could remember its name: Napoli nel Cuore. Naples in the heart.
The following evening we arrived at Napoli nel Cuore. Closed! It was closed because we arrived early. We were hungry and really looked forward to eating some pizza. After some time we returned to the restaurant to find another couple already seated; so we sat further down, closer to the wood oven at another table for two. Seeing the wood oven was a good sign that Napoli nel Cuore would have an exceptional pizza. We perused the menu, my eyes taking in the Italian names of the pizzas as my stomach responded. André and I decided on two pizzas. Since my partner only speaks French, I was to order for us. The pizza chef actually took our order. I may no longer be fluent in Italian, but I still know how to pronounce Italian words on a menu. I ordered the Bianco, the Siciliana, and a bottle of Terre dei Portali. If you are Italian or know how Italian pronunciation works, you know how to pronounce Siciliana. Our pizza chef was pleasantly surprised with my Siciliana–I even said, “Grazie.” I noted, too, that he had an Italian accent rather than an Australian one.
Meanwhile, the waitress brought out some cold water. It had been a warm day and it was equally warm in the restaurant despite its front wall being open to Oxford Street; and since I spoke with a North American accent, our waitress asked us about our visit. I explained our trip and how my partner doesn’t speak English–he’s shy. We also learned that our waitress also speaks a little bit of French and that her name is Martina. It was a nice, friendly discussion: a little bit of French, Italian, and English; and a lot of laughter. Immediately after, Martina came back to offer us three fried balls in a bowl. My partner and I were surprised since we didn’t order any appetizer. Our waitress explained they were compliments of the chef. We tried them and found them delicious. I have never tasted these before even on my travels to Italy. I was curious and asked our chef its name. “Zeppolini,” he revealed, “Fried pizza dough.” As soon as he left, I whispered to André to see if the couple behind me had any zeppolini. He told me no. And for that our evening felt special.
Eventually, our first pizza was brought to our table: the Siciliana. We each had a slice. After having our first bite, my partner and I looked at each other in disbelief. The only thing that ran through my brain was This pizza tastes like heaven! When we could talk, my partner said, “Ça goûte le ciel!” It tastes like heaven! My partner and I were so taken by the surprising flavor that I was moved to tell the chef how wonderful his pizza tasted. And when I couldn’t find any more words to explain my emotion to him, I resorted to gesturing how enamored I was with his culinary creation. He felt so proud of his work that he showed me his secret: the pizza dough. He explained to me that the dough was still moist and pliable. Furthermore he used the family recipe that he had brought over from Naples. Given this information, I admitted to knowing the pizza rivalry between Naples and the neighboring town of Sorrento. Having only eaten pizza in Naples, I can simply say that pizza in Naples is absolutely delicious. (Be that as it may, take advantage of both cities trying to outdo one another). Needless to say, the second pizza had the same effect as the first. Martina added, “It takes a Neopolitan to make a Neopolitan pizza.”
Towards the end of our evening, my partner tells me to make a reservation for the following evening. In addition, he asked me to request to place a new bottle of the red wine we had in the refrigerator because the wine was warm that evening. I was afraid Martina would find that unusual or wouldn’t believe us, but she didn’t bat an eye and looked forward to seeing us again the following evening.
Maybe she was surprised, but Martina seemed genuinely happy to see us the following evening. At the same time, I was pleasantly amazed that she did place a bottle of wine in the refrigerator for us as was requested–it was better colder than “room temperature”. On the other hand, our pizza chef was not there that evening.
For the second evening at Napoli nel Cuore, I ordered in Italian, “Vorrei una pizza classica.” Martina and I locked eyes and both said in unison, “Pizza Margherita!” We both laughed at our knowledge of a classic pizza. André, however, ordered the lasagna.
During the meal, my partner discovered that the middle of the lasagna was frozen…solid! We notified Martina who was aghast to learn about the frozen core. André poked his lasagna with his fork to show he was not kidding. Conk. Conk. Conk. She asked if she can bring out another one for him. He agreed, and she was very apologetic as she took back the lasagna. Luckily for my partner, I am a slow eater–even more so as I savor the pizza margaherita.
Towards the end of our dinner, the friendly Martina apologized again for the frozen lasagna and brought to our table another Italian classic: tiramisù. The majority of the tiramisù I have tasted outside of Italy is overpowered by too much alcohol taste, leaving this classic dessert unappetizing to me; however, I was confident about this tiramisù being made by authentic Italians. As a matter of fact, their tiramisù was delectable.
Our ever friendly waitress didn’t charge us for the dessert. We thanked her, and to her surprise, we requested another reservation for the following evening. “Wine in the fridge,” Martina asked. I smiled and answered, “Yes please.” André and I once again enjoyed our dining experience in this little Italian restaurant. Martina was quite surprised and even more so once André gave her a twenty dollar tip. (It’s not an obligation to tip in Australia like it is in North America).
Our last evening in Sydney and our last dinner at Napoli nel Cuore. We were again greeted by Martina and sat at the same table as the evening before. This time, at Martina’s suggestion, we were to try an Aperol spritz before she was to bring the wine. She explained that Aperol spritz was an Italian aperitif and it helped with digestion before a meal. For our last meal at this amazing restaurant, André and I wanted to celebrate before going back home to Canada. Martina brought out the Aperol spritz. I am not a big alcohol drinker–a glass or two of wine at dinner is the most I would drink–but this Italian aperitif tasted so good and did not have that strong alcohol taste. It was exquisite!
To continue with our celebration, we ordered two pizzas: Funghi and Vegetariana. With two pizzas in mind, Martina suggested to combine the two orders into a half meter pizza. Half a meter?! YES! We will probably never see this in Canada and it would make a stunning foodie photo. Speak of the devil:
André, to my surprise, ordered an appetizer. I did not because I knew we were going to have a lot of food. Nevertheless, Martina brought out another bowl of zeppolini, again compliments of the pizza chef, Fabio. He was there for our first evening, but was absent on our second night.
Martina brought out André’s appetizer, Risotto Mare. At that time, she asked us if we wanted another spritz. I was planning to say no, but to my surprise André agreed to a second one. Martina looked at me until I was able to spit out a yes. It was a good thing that we were not driving that evening, but it would be an interesting walk back to the hotel.
Our last dinner at Napoli nel Cuore was astounding and sensational. Despite not being able to eat another bite after the pizza, Martina brought us a dessert, Pastiera Napoletana–again compliments of Fabio, whom we later learned to be the owner of the restaurant! As it turned out, we still had room for a couple of more bites, and it was well worth being gourmand.
Definitely, dining at Napoli nel Cuore was a wonderful, surprising, and marvelous experience we have ever had! Not only was the service refreshingly friendly and impeccable, but they had authentic Neopolitan cuisine to back it up. Fabio shook our hands before we left, and he was delighted to see that Martina received an even bigger tip than the eveing before–she deserved it because of the flawless and friendly manner she had waited us.
From our experience, being able to speak another language opens doors to a world of amazing people. I have been to Naples back when I was quite fluent in Italian, and I had found the Neopolitans to be as warm as their climate. They are proud of their city as well as their cuisine. Having dinner at Napoli nel Cuore confirmed what I had already known. For us, Napoli nel Cuore is the only place for Italian food in Sydney. It is a restaurant that not only captured our stomach, but also our heart. It is true to its name: Napoli nel Cuore.