Many of us have had to cancel overseas holiday plans over the past year, and I'm sure I'm far from the only one to miss out on a trip to Italy. Fortunately, I found la bella vita without leaving Australia.
Just a 90-minute drive north of Sydney, in the unassuming Central Coast village of Ettalong, sits a little slice of Italy: one whole block of Ocean View Drive that looks like it has been airlifted from the motherland and plonked smack bang in the middle of Australian suburbia.
Driving through Ettalong is something of a culture shock. Either I've stumbled onto a giant movie set that's re-created an Italian town or, like Alice, I've stepped through the looking glass into a fantasy wonderland. The Galleria is one man's nostalgic love letter and tribute to his homeland. Covering almost a whole street block, it was originally started in 1979 by an Italian builder, Jerry Altavilla, and his wife Nina. More than 40 years later it is still evolving, a labyrinth of piazzas and laneways, cafes, shops and eateries, complete with marble statues, decorative arches and wall frescoes.
To top it all off there's Cinema Paradiso, with six theatres decorated in Italian and art deco themes, that run new release and arthouse films. There's even a Sicilian artisan bakery, Sasà, selling cannoli, pasta and biscotti, and an Italian gelateria and bar for refreshments after the cinema. Altavilla tells me how he patiently built the Galleria, acquiring the land it sits on piece by piece over the course of 20 years. "Alfresco dining wasn't even heard of when I started this back in the '70s," he tells me.
Many thought his "folly" wasn't right for Ettalong but it's now the biggest drawcard in town. Like the character in the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, Altavilla's motto was "build it and they will come". And he was right – Ettalong has been transformed from a simple fishing village into what locals tell me proudly is now the gourmet hub of the Central Coast.
Foodies will love the Galleria's dining options, many of which offer up a taste of Italian cuisine. Nicola Coccia, born in Naples and with a CV that includes Ormeggio at The Spit and Biota and Bistro Officina, both in the NSW Southern Highlands, relocated to the Galleria in late 2019 to open Osteria Il Coccia, a sexy, cave-like spot that focuses on food cooked over flames in a charcoal oven. Other options include Bar Toto and La Fiamma.
The jewel in the crown, however, is Safran, a Turkish fine-dining restaurant which has had a well-deserved chef hat in the Australian Good Food Guide for the last two years. The owner and chef, Suleyman Kirbancioglu, has worked all over the world, including at Sydney's Four Seasons, and his food is best described as a modern twist on traditional Turkish cuisine.
My East-meets-West dégustation menu here included crab-filled zucchini flowers, scallops cured in Middle Eastern black lime and sumac, and Mudgee goat shoulder roasted with lemon, garlic and thyme and finished with a tulum cheese custard that melts in the mouth.
Galleria Ettalong Beach also houses more than 50 boutique shops which on weekends turn into a marketplace, with owners opening their doors onto the maze-like passageways. Wandering through them, I felt as though I'd got lost in a wonderful bazaar.
Altavilla confesses he modelled Ettalong's Galleria on Milan's more famous one. But while the décor, with its dramatic paintings and sculptures, is slightly kitsch, what's not to love? It feels like travelling back in time to a Fellini movie set.
Set above all this are the 40 newly refurbished rooms of the Ettalong Beach Tourist Resort, modestly described as a "motel". They look down over grape vines, courtyards and piazzas and out onto shared balconies and walkways, allowing you to drive in, sleep, shop, eat and mingle without leaving the Galleria.
So never mind that you can't get to Italy. Just head to Ettalong for authentic espresso, cannoli, gelato and a passeggiata along The Esplanade on your way to the beach and a swim. It truly is la bella vita!