An Italian-accented tasting menu licked by open flames sets a high standard for finer dining on the Central Coast
May 25, 2023 3:00am
There’s a telling quote in Farm to Flame, the 2018 cookbook by Osteria Il Coccia’s chef and co-owner, Nicola Coccia. “When you cook, you should always be thinking of someone,” it says, “otherwise you’re just preparing a meal.”
Il Coccia is far more than a humble osteria interested in just preparing meals. It is a 50-seat dégustation restaurant that’s also home to one of the few kitchens in the country fuelled exclusively by wood fire. The sort of spot you might find in the inner Sydney backstreets rather than the ground floor of an incongruously modern apartment complex on Ettalong Beach.
If you’re lucky enough to sit up at the kitchen counter to witness him in action, Coccia will make it clear just how much he thinks about people. His grandfather – a fisherman from Puglia – is the inspiration for draping pounded raw yellowfin tuna over burrata sitting in a jarringly sweet green-tomato jam. A salty splash of colatura di alici ties all the flavours together in a thrilling way.
As he passes you a plate of nimbly char-grilled quail, he’ll tell you that he grew up hunting with his father outside of Naples. That’s why there’s long-simmered cacciatore sauce on top, which proves to be a righteous foil for the bitter twice-cooked frisée, sultanas and fermented black garlic underneath the bird.
Cooking with embers and open flames places greater demands on chefs – more patience, more precision – but these guys are up to the challenge. They know exactly how long to smoke the butter that accompanies the house-made sourdough in hay, so that it soaks up ferocious, campfire-like intensity. They understand that it doesn’t take much to turn a good snack into a memorable one: just singe the surface of a brioche soldier so that the mushroom pâté, prosciutto and grated pecorino on top all taste like heightened versions of themselves.
What really gives this place life is an earnest, intuitive warmth seldom felt outside of owner-operated restaurants. That’s due in large part to Coccia’s wife, Alexandra, who oversees the cream-and-terracotta-tinted dining room with gusto. Sommelier Luca Scuri also does his bit, wearing his knowledge lightly when offering suggestions from the fairly priced, mostly Italian list.
As you move through six courses, you realise that everyone here, both on the pans and on the floor, is invested in making the experience as good as it can be. They’re always thinking about someone. And that someone is you.