Meet a resident of Griffith, NSW and there's a six in ten chance they'll have Italian roots. That’s the case for Daniel D'Aquino, co-owner of Zecca Handmade Italian restaurant in the northwestern Riverina town.
D'Aquino grew up with many Italian food rituals, from making sausages with his family to stretching pasta with other kids. "We'll get together, we'll roll the pasta out and we'd eat it for lunch," he says.
Birthdays, weddings and other special celebrations would generate a frenzy of cannoli-making. "Cannoli is a really big thing in my family, it's a Sicilian dessert traditionally," D'Aquino says. Hours were spent on prepping the dough, shaping the cannoli shells, frying them and filling them with vanilla or chocolate cream. "It's a big tradition in my family to make them."
Zecca's chef and co-owner Ben Di Rosa also grew up in Griffith, but has been shaped by Italian food traditions. He remembers pots of polenta on the stove and the family gathering around to cook birds sourced from Griffith's quail farm. 'Everybody would be in the kitchen preparing these quails, stuffing them with some homemade pancetta," he says. "My love of food came from our grandparents always feeding us, trying different things that they were brought up on [eating]."
Di Rosa and D'Aquino didn't just have similar upbringings — they actually spent their Griffith childhoods together.
"We've known each other since we've been born," says D'Aquino. "We've grown up like brothers."
Seven years ago, they came up with the idea for Zecca, a restaurant that actively avoids "tourist Italian fare" and is devoted to regional food — particularly "lost" and "forgotten" recipes.
For Di Rosa, it's a way to pay tribute to his Italian heritage, which has roots in Veneto ("my grandmother's family had an olive grove looking over Lago di Garda," he says) and "little towns surrounding Rome, that's where the other side of my family comes from".
His wife, Michaela Cangelli-Di Rosa, is Zecca's other co-owner. "Her father was actually born in a town called Celano in Abruzzo," he says. "Between the three of us, we've got four specific regions of Italy which our families came over from, which makes it really interesting for us…We draw on that inspiration for what we're doing at Zecca."
The restaurant, which opened in early 2016, has been inspired by many research trips to Italy. "We'd go off the beaten track to find out about these old dishes," says Di Rosa. "To actually find them in Italy, you have to go to a specific town in a specific region and you'd listen to the stories of the people who were making these sorts of dishes, and some of them go back 1,000 years."
He gives an example from Puglia, "which is on the southern heel of Italy": there's a pesto flavoured with pounded broad beans ("a really prominent crop down there"), garlic and fresh herbs. It's tossed through orecchiette ("little ears"), a pasta once formed from an old style of wheat.
The dish has similarities with Pugliese cicatelli: a pasta shape that resembles broad bean pods and has been on Zecca's menu several times.
Di Rosa says, "We try to bring things to life that have been forgotten and that's a really good example of one of those pasta shapes. I'd say most people — not even around the world, let alone Italy — most people would not know that one." He's served the cicatelli at Zecca with the aforementioned broad bean pesto, as well fresh tomatoes and chopped garlic, tossed through the pasta. "It's summer on a plate."
"We try to bring things to life that have been forgotten."
Raschiatelli from Basilicata is another "old, obscure shape" that he's presented at Zecca. While cicatelli describes the pasta's bean pod shape, the name raschiatelli describes the motion of making the pasta shape. "With the Basilicata dialect, it literally means to drag," he says. "You cut off a little piece of dough and you drag it towards you." This act creates a little cut inside the pasta, which collects the sauce that flavours the dough.
Here's another unique feature of Zecca's pasta: it's made from local Riverina wheat, while gluten-free versions are created from chickpea flour sourced from Deniliquin, another town in the Riverina.
D’Aquino explains, "For us, we're Italian heritage, but we're Italian-Australian. We're utilising local produce all the time."
Di Rosa adds, "Any Italian kitchen should be using whatever's grown in close proximity." But their flour actually connects them to Italy in unexpected ways. "A high percentage of the wheat that we grow ends up in Italian pasta factories," says Di Rosa.
"For us, we're Italian heritage, but we're Italian-Australian. We're utilising local produce all the time."
Zecca sells its dried pasta varieties at the restaurant, grocers and online (shipping its products across the country) — and they're a far cry from what you'll find in supermarkets. Instead of spaghetti, for instance, you'll find gigli. "The translation is lily blossoms, so it's meant to look like a lily blossom," says Di Rosa.
And with its menu, Zecca is inspiring nostalgia from diners trying not-so-common Italian dishes.
"People say, 'that's something my grandma used to make, I haven't had that in years!'" says Di Rosa.
"These little traditions are getting lost. Zecca is focusing on those types of meals and traditions, so it doesn't get forgotten," the chef adds. "It's an important part of our heritage."
Zecca Handmade Italian
239 Banna Avenue, Griffith NSW
Tuesday-Friday: 9:30am - 3:00pm, Saturday 11am – 3pm
Thursday-Saturday: 6pm – 11pm