Cast your mind back to a holiday five years ago. Where did you go? What did you see? Though you’ll no doubt remember core details, those around the edges may be a little hazy. Because memories fade. However, those centred around food often stand the test of time.
Restaurateur, chef and passionate traveller Alessandro (Alex) Pavoni is a firm believer of this, noting our palates tend to have a far better memory than our minds. One bite or sip can be all it takes to take us right back to a moment in time.
For Pavoni, memories of his native Italy are the strongest: growing up in the Lombardy region, travelling and honing his craft in Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe, before eventually settling in Australia in 2003. Global travels continue to inspire his cuisine.
Now, as Executive Chef at the helm of Crown Sydney’s award-winning Italian restaurant a’Mare, he’s igniting the memories of diners with new and nostalgic dishes celebrating the regions of Italy, with a focus on old-school service.
What are some of your favourite food travel memories?
Italy is a regular for me – so many memories are tied to it. It’s always a learning experience as well, because it’s divided into 20 different regions (which were in fact their own countries until only 200 years or so ago) and the cuisine changes drastically between them.
I’m always surprised by new dishes, new recipes, and traditions I uncover. A good example is in Sardinia, which has very unique food influenced by Spain and north Africa. There you’ll find dishes like fregola, which is closer to a very thick couscous than pasta.
They have made types of bread also – like carta di musica, which is a very thin bread – that aren’t found anywhere else. My mum is from Lombardy and didn’t know about the existence of this one until I brought it to her, and she’s lived 75 years in Italy.
Are there any standout restaurants or dishes you always return to?
Whenever I visit Venice I always go to al Gatto Nero, which is on the island of Burano – one of the 118 islands making up the Venice archipelago – and has been there for three generations.
It’s a real family affair, now owned by the son, and it has the absolutely best seafood you can find in Venice. I always have the grancevola (spider crab), which grows in the Venice lagoon.
Have any of your signature dishes been inspired by your travels?
My restaurant, a’Mare, is inspired by the traditional dishes in Italy. One dish in particular is my take on something I found at the amazing Da Vittorio Brusaporto (around 10 minutes from Bergamo). It’s orecchia di elefante, which is an elephant ear veal cutlet.
Essentially, you get the veal rack and open it like a book, so it looks like the ears and tusks of an elephant. It’s coated in flour and eggs then fried and served with butter – and it’s outstanding. It’s difficult to do but so delicious, and a signature dish at a’Mare.
Travel inspired another dish we do, because I learned in Genoa that the people there hate eating pesto made longer than half an hour ago. They make it, they eat it, otherwise it oxidises and isn’t very nice.
The restaurants there often have a bar where they have big mortar making the pesto and serving it straight away. It’s something I hadn’t seen anywhere else and loved the idea, so I had a mortar built in Liguria and brought the idea back to my restaurant.
We now have it on a trolley and I make the pesto tableside and it’s an amazing experience, because of the freshness.
Where have you travelled recently and what surprised you about the trip?
I absolutely love Japanese food, Japanese culture, and the dedication many have to mastering that one skill. I was there a little over a month ago, mostly in Tokyo and Kyoto, where my friend René Redzepi just did a pop-up for Noma.
I visited several fantastic restaurants, but honestly some of the best food was actually just under Tokyo train station at Ramen Street. I went to Michelin tempura restaurants, sushi restaurants, but the flavour of the ramen – just at a train station – blew my mind.
There are thousands of people passing through, but the biggest restaurants probably only have 15-20 covers, so you have to line up. It’s worth it though. I honestly had the best ramen of my life there.
What’s the one dish you like to prepare that always makes you think of travel?
Around 25 years ago I travelled through southeast Asia. Being from Italy, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to Asian cuisine. It was very hard to find any good Asian restaurants back then, and even now there are rarely any Thai restaurants.
I went to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and the curries were simply unbelievable! The yellow curry, the green, and red curry, in particular. I fell in love with those flavours… then went back to Italy and forgot about them.
Coming to Australia I was exposed to them again and was very fortunate to learn recipes from some of Australia’s best Thai chefs, like David Thompson, who’s yellow curry I still use to this day.
Whenever I make it, it reminds me of those travels – transporting me back 25 years, just me and my cousin touring around, not speaking any English and discovering new flavours. I think our palate has a better memory than anything else.
What’s your favourite gourmet destination in Australia and why?
I really like Adelaide and the area surrounding it, like the Barossa. Though better known for wine it has some wonderful restaurants too. Melbourne is another top city for me – just walking along Lygon Street and discovering restaurants and incredible cuisine; it's very European.
I’ve previously worked in Lyon and I really rate the restaurants there. One, in particular, is called La Rotonde. I go to France for fine dining and feel they’re the best in the world for that.
I also really like Spain. It has similar flavours and ingredients to Italy, but the cuisine is totally different. I’ll never forget having a paella in Barcelona by the water.
I’ve had some really great meals in Oslo, Norway too. They mostly make a lot of soups and stews up there; nurturing food, because it’s often so cold. I remember having reindeer stew for the first time, which was actually really amazing. It’s somewhere I’d love to return to.
Looking for more gourmet Travel Tales? Matt Moran reveals his enduring love of Singapore here, while Justin James of Restaurant Botanic Adelaide takes us on a whirlwind journey from New York to Copenhagen.