If there’s one thing i’d like to squeeze out of Gabriele Taddeucci, head chef at Stefano Manfredi’s Balla at Sydney’s The Star casino, it’s how to make the ‘nduja that he serves on wood-fired ciabatta with a dollop of rich, soft goats cheese.
For the uninitiated ‘nduja (pronounced en-doo-ya) is a traditional Southern Italian salami that is – wait for it … spreadable. That’s right folks. Forget the meat slicer, this oozy-schmoozy salami can be spread on bread, licked off fingers and – here’s something to lose sleep over – melted into soups and pasta sauces to give them a chilli smack not to be messed with.
I’ve dined at Balla a number of times – it’s one of the benefits of working across the road at Fairfax – but ‘nduja has proved a perennial sticking point. Since the first time i selected from the antipasti menu the charming trio, of which it is a member, i haven’t been able to resist it.
“Outrageous” is how my most recent dining partner described it. Outrageous it surely is.
The fire-bomb smudge of chilli-spiked, dark-red spread contrasts perfectly the creamy goats cheese and smoky wood-fired bread. I’d like to smear it under the skin of chicken prior to roasting, slap it alongside crème fraîche inside a smashed jacket potato, and whack it inside cheesy croquettes so it becomes lava-like in the deep-fry.
It’s a fire-cracker introduction to Balla’s menu, which is splattered with traditional Milanese dishes and southern Italian influences, many of which are infused with the smokiness that comes with being cooked on a 100-year-old seasoned Ironbark wood-fired grill.
If you’d rather antipasti that only blows your mind and not your chill-scorched taste buds, then crudo di pesce – skin-thin slithers of raw fish dressed with lemon, olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper is subtle, refined, and pleasantly un-fishy. Poached veal in vitello tonnato is as pink as a teenager’s blush, the tuna and caper sauce is dollop-thick and on the just-right side of rich. Cecina al forno – baked chickpea and pecorino tart is as thin as a pancake and just as comforting. A smorgasbord of salumi includes prosciutto di Pino, prosciutto San Daniele, bresaola, pancetta and soppressa.
‘Nduja isn’t my only sticking point. I struggle to get beyond the primi – or starter sized portions of pasta and potato gnocchi. Gnocchi with duck ragu is particularly difficult to resist, and if there’s another thing i’d like to squeeze out of Taddeucci – or Manfredi, for that matter – it’s how to make gnocchi that dissipate like melting moments when popped in the mouth. The ragu shared rather than dominated the spotlight.
The last time i dined at Balla i made it beyond the primi to the carne (meat) section of the menu. Bistecchina di manzo ai ferri, funghi e Grana – wood-grilled grass-fed “minute steak” with mushrooms and grana – delivered a smoky punch that was slightly over-powering for my taste, though i intend to explore this section of the menu further. The mix of mushrooms and slithers of grana was a gratifying topping, but with a dash too much vinegar.
A slice of domed zuccotto – a layered cake of sponge, chocolate, ricotta and mascarpone, speckled with glacé fruit and served with alcohol plumped cherries – was gently sweet and a light note on which to end a rewarding meal.
Manfredi and his business partner Julie Manfredi Hughes have created a dining room that is modernist and striking with a geometric aqua-hued ceiling and majestic marble-tiled columns. The huge square windows open and close electronically and were wide open to the ink-black night and shimmering Sydney harbour when i last arrived, adding to the feeling of spaciousness.
Balla is on trend with an all-Italian wine list that arrives on an iPad, (read more about it in the article i wrote for the Australian Financial Review – Diners Go Digital), and stylish single-sex toilets. Staff are friendly and attentive.
All up, Balla is a star in its own right at Sydney’s gentrified casino entertainment complex. Shine on.