Giovanni Pilu was born in Sardinia and arrived in Australia in 1992 full of enthusiasm and passion for the unique flavours of his homeland. He believes Sardinian cooking should involve simple ingredients, prepared with minimum fuss, allowing the full flavour of the ingredients to speak for themselves.
At his first restaurant, Cala Luna in Mosman, which he opened in 1997, he presented a broad Italian menu, slowly introducing Sydney diners to Sardinian specialties such as fregola (toasted, couscous-like pasta) and bottarga (air-dried mullet roe). Since opening Pilu at Freshwater in 2004, he’s expanded his Sardinian repertoire, cooking more of the food that’s in his blood and close to his heart, and even offering a Sardinian tasting menu with matched Sardinian wines.
Rugged, isolated, untamed Sardinia has two distinct cuisines: coastal and inland. Many Sardinians have traditionally lived in the mountains as shepherds and farmers, and so, unusually for island dwellers, their cooking has been based on meat (pork, lamb and wild game), sheep’s cheese (pecorino) and fregola. While the coastal cuisine has been influenced by many invaders, from the Phoenicians, through Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Genovese and Catalans, to the modern Italians, all of whom brought with them different ways of preparing the island’s abundant seafood harvest. Pilu at Freshwater, a beautifully restored heritage-listed weatherboard beach house overlooking Freshwater Beach in Sydney’s north, is an idyllic setting for food from this Mediterranean island. Large windows let natural light in and allow diners to gaze out, while a light bright colour scheme adds to the relaxed, beach house feel.
Over the years, Giovanni’s cooking has evolved from a simple presentation of Sardinian classics, such as baked whole baby snapper with vernaccia wine and green olives (still on the current menu) to include more modern techniques and presentations. A broth (‘brodo’ in Italian) made by infusing pecorino to extract it’s sweet, nutty, cheesy flavour is combined with hand-rolled fregola pasta, smoked pumpkin, chestnuts and lemon thyme, to create a superb dish that is at once distinctively Sardinian (the pecorino, fregola and chestnuts) and decidedly modern (a cheese soup? smoked pumpkin?). More and more of this skilful blending of the old and the new is appearing on the Pilu menu. The focus on previously unknown Sardinian beverages is also an exciting point of difference, with the restaurant exclusively importing many of the 70 or so Sardinian wines they serve, as well as offering a range of artisanal Sardinian beers.
But changes are gradual and subtle and the brief, frequently-changing menu manages to keep both traditionalists and innovators happy, offering a more-or-less classic ‘porcetto arrosto’, slow-roasted suckling pig, served on the bone with scented apple sauce, alongside a more modern scampi crudo with pickled cauliflower, cime di rapa and horseradish cream. And come dessert time, there’s ‘seadas ripiena di ricotta’, traditional Sardinian deep-fried pastries filled with ricotta and sultanas drizzled with warm bitter honey, for those after the comfort of the familiar, or chestnut mousse and crumble, pistachio sponge and pumpkin gelato for those seeking a little more excitement.
Giovanni's first cookbook, A Sardinian Cookbook, was released in October 2012 and in late 2015 he opened he opened Pilu at Akuna Bay in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Open only for long casual Sunday lunches (and for private events the rest of the week), it’s a beautiful spot to watch the yachts over aperitivi on the deck, then enjoy Giovanni shared lunch feast (just $65 per person or $25 for under 12s) with antipasti, pasta, main course and dessert served family-style in the centre of the table.
Visit Pilu at Freshwater for more information.