Let's talk about the vegan lasagne at Gardener's Lodge in Sydney's Glebe.
Yes, it's that good. It's layered with plenty of hot, overflowing cheese (except it's dairy-free like the Green Vie parmesan sprinkled on top). The béchamel is creamy and just as rich but made with soy milk and another vegan cheese from Gardener's Lodge's plant-based arsenal (and deli cabinet). And the ragù is super 'meaty', tomato-ey and savoury, drawing on punchy ingredients (like a convincing vegan mince).
It's so good that, yes, someone asked to marry its creator.
The café's co-owner Jessica Matino Ndibe still remembers the day. Her parents had dropped by Gardener's Lodge for lunch and her brother Marco Matino – the man responsible for the vegan lasagne – happened to be in the kitchen.
When he said hello to some Gardener's Lodge regulars who'd been chatting to his parents, they became star-struck when they realised who the chef was. "So you're the one who makes the lasagne," one of the diners said. When he said yes, she replied in the aptest (and all-in) way possible. "Marry me," she blurted out.
It isn't the only next-level response his dish has inspired.
"'God', 'wizard' and 'genius' are all words which people have used to describe my brother for coming up with the recipe for our lasagne," says Matino Ndibe. "Many of our customers tell us it's the best lasagne they've ever had, followed by 'sorry mum'."
One diner took a bite, nervously called the café co-owner over and checked the cheesy lasagne was actually vegan. "I assured her that everything on our menu is."
"'God', 'wizard' and 'genius' are all words which people have used to describe my brother for coming up with the recipe for our lasagne."
It makes sense that the food is so good as Matino is the chef behind Gigi Pizzeria, the Newtown institution that attracts queues for its argument-ending vegan toppings – from roasted potato with truffle pâté to Swiss brown mushrooms with a suspiciously great vegan blue cheese. (And, despite switching over from a carnivore-friendly menu to a plant-based one back in 2015, the pizzeria has still held onto its Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana verification and Naples-endorsed badge of honour.)
Along with a fellow Gigi chef, Simone Crivello, Matino can be credited for an array of plant-based dishes at Gardener's Lodge. They include a pan-seared oyster and blue cheese sandwich that reminds you of that aforementioned brilliant-but-suspicion-sparking pizza (don't worry, it really is vegan).
The café's spinach and ricotta calzone will remind you of Gigi. The café shares the pizzeria's Italian influences across the menu: there's an eggplant parm-evoking sandwich, zucchini fritters with dairy-free feta (another cheese you can pick up from the café's deli fridge), vegan tiramisu and filled-to-order cannoli, too.
With their careers ruled by menus and tables to serve, it's logical that the siblings grew up in an Italian family where food mattered deeply.
"From an early age, we were in the kitchen learning to make dishes which were passed down through generations," says Matino Ndibe.
"Marco had a huge passion for cooking from when we were kids," she adds. "He'd enlist Mum and Nonna to help him nail the art of gnocchi-making when he was just 13, so we weren't really competitive when it came to cooking. It was more like he was the cook and I was the taste-tester! Come to think of it, not much has changed!"
And while he has influenced her menus, she's the one who convinced her family to give up prosciutto and pancetta.
"I went vegetarian when I was 14. A few months later, after many discussions and information shared, my mum and Marco also decided to stop eating meat." Their dad took a few more years to permanently say no to salami and soppressata, but he eventually embraced a meat-free diet as well.
"Twenty years later, mum and I went vegan at the same time," she says. "After many heated discussions around the dinner table, Marco decided it was time to look into things further." He went vegan, too, and took the dairy and meat off his pizzas – a move that sparked plenty of online debate, but did not reduce Gigi Pizzeria’s popularity in any way (if anything, those famous queues seemed to get longer after the restaurant dropped the cheese and salumi).
So when Matino Ndibe opened Gardener's Lodge in February with husband Charles Ndibe, it was obvious who should be responsible for the food.
"We were inspired to collaborate with Marco on the menu items because we knew, just as he nailed the vegan pizza and desserts at Gigi, he would help us get the menu right at Gardener's Lodge."
And unlike the stereotype about squabbling siblings, there was no civil war when they collaborated. In fact, quite the opposite. "Working together was the best!" she says.
Family memories – like the recipes she grew up with and the old Italian cookbooks they sought out – are also influencing new additions to the menu. There's the Neapolitan lentil and endive soup she's made for years ("I've cooked it for celebrations, intimate dinners and dropped it off to family members and friends when they've been sick”); that might end up on the menu during winter. Then there's gattò di patate (a crusty-gold Neapolitan potato 'cake' layered with mashed potatoes and cheese).
"My grandad on my dad's side taught my mum to make it when my parents were in Naples during their honeymoon. They'd just got back from a night out – it was midnight, they were tired, jet-lagged and making a beeline for the bedroom when my Nonno grabbed my mum by the arm and dragged her into the kitchen saying: 'where do you think you're going? We're making gattò di patate!'" she says.
"Yep, that's my family for you – food before sleep."
And now they're proving how good vegan food can be.
Corner of Parramatta Rd and City Rd, Camperdown
Mon – Fri 8.30 am – 3 pm | Sat – Sun 9 am – 3 pm
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