LUCIO pauses mid-stride as he passes my table and then - perhaps because he can recognise the colour and bouquet, or maybe because he cheated and peeked at my order - says: "Ah, but you are drinking a wine from my region, Liguria."
He claps his hands gently then stares at me for a moment. What happens next is beyond cheating. "But you are my friend from New Zealand," he says, as if we have known each other a lifetime.
I had only been to Lucio Galletto's restaurant in Sydney's Paddington once before and that had been at least six months earlier. Obviously Lucio had a remarkable memory because on that occasion I had been with a large group of artists and gallery patrons.
We had met at Tim Olsen's nearby gallery, where he introduced his renowned artist/father, John, and his exhibition of vibrant paintings of food. Lucio was one of the speakers and, afterwards, we went to his self-named restaurant for a leisurely, understated but superb lunch.
The Olsens and Lucio are longtime friends. One of John's paintings was on the art-lined walls of the restaurant and he also designed the menu.
Lucio is drawn to the company of artists and I guessed quite a number had paid for meals by giving him paintings.
Lucio's Italian Restaurant is an institution in Sydney: 27 years ago it opened in leafy, suburban Windsor St and has been regularly awarded two hats in the Sydney Good Food Guide, the last time presented by the Italian president in recognition of fine Italian cuisine outside of Italy.
As Lucio shook my hand firmly, I mentioned I'd been with the Olsens last time and he was delighted. "They are here now," he said and waved to a nearby table. Lucio's might seem high-end, but the family atmosphere and friendliness are its hallmarks and the place comes with a wonderful backstory, as told in the handsomely presented biography, travel guide and recipe book Soffritto: A Ligurian Memoir, billed as "lived by Lucio Galletto, written by David Dale, photographed by Paul Green".
It tells of Lucio's recent journeys back to Liguria to explore the region he left half his lifetime ago when he fell in love with an Australian girl. It's well worth reading.
The book - the title of which refers to the sauce base made from pulped garlic, parsley and other ingredients fried in hot oil - tells of the region his family know as Lunigiana along the Magra River in northwest coastal Italy.
Here his family fought the fascists, father Mauro and uncle Gino Guelfi opened Ciccio's on the beach in 1951 to sell soup and fish to locals and artists, and the young Lucio fell in love with Sally and left for Australia.
The stories of Soffritto are beguiling: encounters with old friends and eccentric characters; small villages and family restaurants; fascists and partisans; Etruscan and Roman ruins and treks through the mountains to find fine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, the perfect parmesan and local delicacies. Along the way, Lucio rediscovers his soffritto, the essence of himself.
As I leave, Lucio shakes my hand again - "my friend from New Zealand", he says with a huge smile - then, as an afterthought adds with enormous enthusiasm: "We have another New Zealander here all the time; he comes almost every day."
I'm intrigued and ask who this might be.
"It is our chef, Logan Campbell. He is from New Zealand, too."
Further information: Lucio's Italian Restaurant is at 47 Windsor St, Paddington, Sydney.
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