Sydney Japanese-Italian restaurant Ito serves wow-worthy food in Surry Hills


Buzzy, busy Ito in Surry Hills effortlessly combines Italian flavours with a Japanese aesthetic.

Terry Durack

Good Food hat15/20

Japanese$$

It’s not often you have food that makes you groan. But the cooking at Ito catches me by surprise again and again with its see-saw balance of tickly acidity and rich savoury umami. “Can you stop moaning?” says my guest. “It’s putting me off my food.” So I segue to just saying wow, crikey, blimey and an occasional OMG.

Take the hiramasa kingfish crudo, a cliche of modern dining, and rarely a standout. But here, thick, buttery slices of the fish ($27) are dressed with white soy that’s bitey with yuzu, ginger and rice vinegar and goes oomph in the mouth. Even the little clumps of finely sliced golden zucchini are pickley. I may have said “wow” out loud.

Hiramasa kingfish crudo with a bitey white soy, yuzu, ginger and rice vinegar dressing.
Hiramasa kingfish crudo with a bitey white soy, yuzu, ginger and rice vinegar dressing.Wolter Peeters

What was Cuckoo Callay in recent times, and Prasit’s Thai in ancient times, has been totally reinvented by the ESCA group (Nour, Aalia, etc), into two levels of buzzy, busy, izakaya-inspired dining.

It fronts the plaza by the Surry Hills library as visibly as an ant farm, its inner workings framed by architect Matt Darwon in minimalist clean lines, wooden screens, louvred glass, and black-stained wood.

Clean lines, wooden screens, louvred glass, and black-stained wood reveal Ito’s inner workings.
Clean lines, wooden screens, louvred glass, and black-stained wood reveal Ito’s inner workings.Wolter Peeters

While head chef Erik Ortolani is not Japanese, the Italian-born talent learnt his stuff at Nobu in Milan before coming to Sydney in 2016. He fell for Japanese cuisine while cooking at Cho Cho San for five years.

That would explain a menu in which a classic sashimi platter is followed with quail karaage and burnt capsicum agrodolce. Some mash-ups between two different cuisines can feel forced, but this one seems organic and natural.

Plus, Sydney has form in “itameshi”, the term for Japanese-Italian cuisine – Federico Zanellato of LuMi Dining worked in Japan at the Michelin-starred Nihonryori RyuGin and has fused Japanese and Italian ever since.

The cooking at Ito catches me by surprise again and again … Blimey, I whisper to myself.

A panzanella salad is mighty ($24), with rustic chunks of heirloom tomato and chewy sourdough croutons. The creamy base is fresh stracciatella, and what looks like salsa verde drizzled over the top is made with aonori (dried seaweed), togarashi, fresh shiso and tamari. Blimey, I whisper to myself.

Then along comes Hokkaido scallop ravioli ($38), floppy fat wonton triangles of scallop and prawn under a rich and buttery sauce strewn with spanner crab meat and dimpled with tobiko roe. It’s the sort of richness that sneaks up on you, probably because you don’t expect a 1980s beurre blanc style of sauce with pasta in an izakaya.

Go-to dish: Hokkaido scallop ravioli, crab, tobiko.
Go-to dish: Hokkaido scallop ravioli, crab, tobiko.Wolter Peeters

A fillet of Murray cod ($58) benefits from the ichiya-boshi method of brining and dry-aging overnight. The skin is as crisp as a chip, the flesh cleaves gently, and again, the sauce is rich and buttery; a silky emulsion of butter, bonito dashi and sake. It’s adorned with a corsage of nutty, deep-fried artichokes that look like exploded flowers.

Speaking of sake, you’ll need it for cut-through – or a freezer martini or a Hiragana highball of Four Pillars yuzu gin, lychee and jasmine soda. Four different flights of sake ($45-$55) run from floral to earthy, taking you through various incarnations of rice polishing and water hardness in a do-it-yourself masterclass ($45 to $55). A leather-bound wine list holds Italian, Australian and Japanese options; glasses are delicate Riedel, and pours are 150ml.

Teriyaki-glazed wagyu rump cap  skewers topped with pickled shallots.
Teriyaki-glazed wagyu rump cap skewers topped with pickled shallots.Wolter Peeters

Grills are rewardingly simple. A butterflied king prawn ($16) is daubed with red yuzu kosho, and a skewer of Stockyard wagyu rump cap ($16) is teriyaki-glazed and topped with pickled shallots.

Dessert takes a playful swerve, with a set chocolate flan – almost a blancmange – lurking under a crown of Chantilly cream and pear granita ($16). Oh, for heaven’s sake, I can’t stop eating that either.

Note that window tables are small and chairs are blocky – ask for the banquette if you actually have a bottom.

But what a smart, sleek package, run by a highly engaged team, with effortlessly original, even uplifting, food. It should really be called Eato, not Ito. Now that’s groan-worthy.

The low-down

Go-to dish: Hokkaido scallop ravioli, crab, tobiko, $38

Vibe: Upstairs/downstairs, inside/outside izakaya-inspired dining

Drinks: Aspirational sake list and sake flights, plus accessible old and new world wine list from group sommelier Eleonore Wulf

Cost: About $200 for two, plus drinks

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Terry DurackTerry Durack is the chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and Good Food.

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