You only live once.

This is what is ghost written in block font on the glass balcony of North Bondi Italian Food. When you’re bobbing up and down in the surf you can see emblazoned on the other side of the sand. Maybe it’s a cynical marketing ploy to convince you to spend $24 on air freighted buffalo mozzarella, butter lettuce and cherry tomatoes. Or maybe it’s just the truth.

It must be said that this Sydney summer, The Hungry One and I have found ourselves stumbling into Robert Marchetti’s concrete floored pleasure dome on more than a few occasions.

First things first. The North Bondi wanker is a special sub breed of Sydney citizen. It’s the 19 year olds in ironic high waisted denim shorts and white mesh tops, drinking cocktails made with Midori. The five bronzed glamazons looking sheepishly around the bar because they’re all wearing the same navy and white striped, spaghetti strapped maxi dresses. The man-children with swirls of ethnic inspired ink on their toned upper biceps, interspersing conversation about the rack they put their board on, that they put up their nose, and that of the chick behind them. Satre was right. Hell is other people.

But when you’ve just come out of the surf and you’ve still got water in your ears, you don’t really hear them. If you’ve still got sand between your toes, it’s hard to care about much else, and if you come early, then they’re all probably off somewhere still doing their makeup, or sleeping off the night before.

Like its native inhabitants North Bondi Italian Food is a mercurial beast. But if you play it right, then there is very little that is more magical than an evening on the balcony, bookended by swims in the gentle tumble of the North Bondi surf.

First lesson. Get there early.

The doors open for lunch at 12pm. The doors open for dinner at 6pm. They don’t take bookings. You want to get there 5-10 minutes before hand and gently loiter outside, taking care not to sit on the War Memorial. Why do you want to get there early? Because you want to be outside on the balcony, looking over the upturned smile of Bondi sand. Sure the tables seat six to eight and if there are two of you you might end up sharing with some strangers, but it’s still where you want to be. Get there any later and you could be inside, in the back, in the semi dark, in a room with concrete floor where people are shouting at each other. And that feels a little like after school detention, with wine.

Second lesson. You don’t have to dress up.

There are plenty of other people who will do that around you. But this is a restaurant 20 meters from the sand. You’re going to be fishing for your own cutlery out of a box on the table. The menus are printed on disposable placemats. The waitstaff may be good looking, but they’re kitted up in some pretty comedic denim overall apron concoction. Coming out of the water at 5.45 pm, gathering up your towel and throwing on a beach dress and thongs sets exactly the tone you need for the best kind of eve. You can then do a quick splash of water over your hair in the unisex toilets at the back and duck out of your togs if you need to. I’m sure that’s not the most risque thing that’s happened in those loos.

Third lesson. Pinkish drinks are your friend.

This is a place that was built for Campari. Both inside and outside are tribes of bottles as suggestive installations. Campari’s slightly medicinal twang, combined with the earnestness of vitamin C is exactly what you need to get the residue of sea water salt moving around your mouth. At around $8 it’s certainly more financially viable than some of the cocktail list. The carafes of Rose also are reasonable and cheerful. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I.

Fourth lesson. Stick to things with vegetables, cheese and fish.

The menu is split into formaggio, antipasti, salumi, insalate, verdure, pasta, panini, carpaccio, fruitti di mare, offal, carne, dolci and ‘roast of the day’.

If you’re not a little strategic, it can be very easy to order a meal heavy on things that have danced through a deep fryer, small on portion size, are a little disappointing, and can whallop your wallet.

So, here’s how you avoid it.

At $16 the ricotta basket with mint, lemon, salt flakes, chilli and grilled bread is golden. You’ll get bread for the table and house blend olive oil as well, so together they easily fill a hole. The grilled bread comes burnished slightly from a flame and is a necessary counterpoint for the putting hole sized tub of angelically smooth pansaenella ricotta. The chilli, mint, salt and lemon are a happy band of backing singers which add punch and personality. You get your hands in it and make up little bruschettas of your own. This is the first dish on the menu. You could go, eat this and a colourful combination of baby beetroot, goats curd and spring onion and leave, perfectly content.

From there the $19 baccala balls with aioli and lemon can be fun. The salt cod and potato combination is fiendishly fluffy, the outside carapace perfectly crisp.

The eggplant parmigiana is also a safe port in some stormy parts of the menu. Here it’s a simple, dense square of congealed vegetable and cheesy goodness. On the plate it has a little of a school camp lasagne look to it, but in the mouth it’s a buoyant banter between the sweetness of tomato sugo and the murkiness of grilled eggplant. Add a green salad and you’re away.

When you get to the fishy bits of the menu the steamed Boston Bay mussels with guiancale are heavy on the brine, while the generic ‘white fish carpaccio with roasted fennel seeds, dried chilli, mint and lemon is a variation on a familiar flavour theme. On a muggy night, it’s delightfully light on the palatte. Yet it’s also pretty light on the plate. For $24 you’ll be looking at blister thin wafts of fish layered in a startlingly modest portion size. Fine if you’re a size 6 bikini model. Not so ideal if you’re The Hungry One after a swim and a surf.

I doubt unless you’re carbo loading that a steaming bowl of ($26-$28) pasta is what you’re going to be gagging for on a balmy summer’s night. But if you do find yourself wading in that direction you’ll find portion sizes are standard, dried pasta is king and there’s not a lot you couldn’t bash together yourself at home, with staples like orecchiette with cherry tomaotes, ricotta and basil, tagliatelle ‘all amatriciana’ taking up real estate on the menu.

And then there’s the Spaghetti ‘arrabbiata’ with shredded crab and with the added novelty of being served in a paper bag with a scrunchy cap to seal in the heat.

Sadly the steaming effect of cooking in the bag means that the sauce can be a little watery. Luckily I can’t read anything ‘arrabiatta’ on a menu without thinking of the Death Star canteen so I was too amused to really mind.


Lesson five. Understand what location costs mean

When you first look at the menu, and later when you look at the bill, take a breath. You know that you pay more for parking close to the beach. You pay more for houses next to the beach. There’s every chance you’re going to pay a little more for food where you feel like you could touch the waves while you eat.

When it comes to the end of the meal you could probably skip the slices of ‘eating well now’ pineapple and the insanely rich and dense cold baked chocolate pots. You might want to wander up the beach to Pompeiis for gelato instead.

But if you’re going to pull up a perch at North Bondi Italian Food, make sure you make good use of the adjacent real estate while you’re there. Swim before. Swim afterwards. Walk on the sand. Sit outside. Drink pink things, pick off the menu carefully and stare out at the horizon.

The sign is right. You do only live once. And this isn’t a half bad way to do it.

http://www.idrb.com/northbondi/