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HomeFoodPilu at Freshwater celebrates 20 years

Pilu at Freshwater celebrates 20 years

Pilu, one of the Sydney’s most awarded restaurants, is soon to celebrate 20 years serving Sardinian-inspired fare on the Northern Beaches. But its genesis far pre-dates 2004; the threads of its two award-winning hats first sewn in the bustle of a Sardinian kitchen one summer in the 1980s.

Having had a modest upbringing high in the hills of Sardinia, where the diet is mainly plant-based with meat for special occasions, a young Giovanni Pilu had never tasted seafood nor owned his own bicycle.

Until…

A European love story

“I fell in love with hospitality when I was 14,” Giovanni says.

During the three-month school holidays in Italy, Giovanni went to work for his aunt and uncle who owned a bar and restaurant. He would work every day, only having a few hours in the afternoon (the European siesta) to hit the beach. His first stint earned him a new bicycle.

“Every year, I couldn’t wait for the school year to be finished so I could go back,” he says.

After high school, Giovanni became interested in a career as a chef and started as a kitchen hand and doing the breakfast shift in a five-star hotel.

Meanwhile, the Freshwater restaurant’s manager and matriarch, Marilyn Annechini, had finished uni in Australia and was preparing to backpack Europe.

Giovanni and Marilyn. Image via Instagram
Giovanni and Marilyn. Image via Instagram

“I ended up in Sardinia as I had some family friends living there and so I went to stay with them,” she says.

“I met Giovanni in a nightclub, of all places.”

Marilyn ended up staying in Sardinia – although if you asked her mum at the time, she would’ve told you her daughter was having a wonderful time exploring all of Europe.

“I used to ring my mum and tell her I was in all of these different countries, but I was just staying In Sardinia,” Marilyn laughs.

When Marilyn had to return home, there was only one thing 22-year-old Giovanni could do. He followed her six months later, having very little knowledge of English.

“I did a few short courses after I arrived, but I didn’t really learn that much. For one of the courses, we were all Italian, so we just spoke Italian to each other,” he says.

TAFE was when it all turned around.

“At the start of my TAFE course, it was a three-way-translation between myself, Marilyn and my lecturer, but by the second year, I won an award for communication skills,” he tells us.

TAFE was a turning point for Giovanni, which is why he dedicates a lot of time and effort to supporting the education institute.

“Because of how much they helped me when I first came to Australia, I try to give back whenever I can, whether that is fundraising, inspirational talks or anything they need help with,” Giovanni says.

After working at a restaurant in Terrey Hills, Giovanni and a business partner ran Cala Luna at The Spit for seven years.

Marilyn and Giovanni on opening night, 20 years ago.
Marilyn and Giovanni on opening night, 20 years ago. Image supplied.

A leap of faith and hard work

In 2004, the Severino family saw Giovanni and Marilyn’s potential and offered them the opportunity to start their own restaurant on the grassy dunes of Freshwater.

“They had purchased the building, which used to be The Freshwater Restaurant, and asked us if we’d like to open a restaurant there,” Marilyn says.

“It was always our dream to have a place on the water, especially Giovanni coming from Sardinia.

“We were young and naïve, which was probably a good thing back then as we had no experience with a venue this size or employing so many staff or serving to that amount of people, but the Severino family saw something in us and we are still grateful they gave us the opportunity.”

In their early thirties, with two small children, Giovanni and Marilyn opened Pilu. They went from a staff of eight at Cala Luna, to 35 and now boast over 50 staff.

“At Cala Luna, it was pretty casual, and at Pilu we got to bring the Sardinian influence to the dishes and to elevate the dining experience,” Marilyn adds.

Giovanni recalls being run off their feet in those first few months when Pilu took off.

“One diner approached me and said, ‘No offence, you have a beautiful restaurant, and the food is amazing, but you need to do something about your service’,” Giovanni says.

“He introduced me to Edwina, an amazing woman who had experience in fine dining and she came on and gave us the structure to our service that we didn’t know we needed.”

Opening Pilu was a risk, but one that paid off.

Within its first year of operation, Pilu secured Two Hats and Best New Restaurant from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards.

The Pilu team in 2023.
The Pilu team in 2023. Image via Instagram

Giovanni credits his staff with making Pilu what it is today.

“It has been a big journey, but it isn’t just Marilyn and I, yes, it is under our guidance and what we want, but our staff make it happen,” he says.

“Over the years, we have slowly refined our service and created a great hospitality atmosphere within the restaurant, and while it is fine dining, diners still come in thongs, shorts and a t-shirt. They feel relaxed and welcome, which is what we want.”

“While it is fine dining, diners still come in thongs, shorts and a t-shirt. They feel relaxed and welcome, which is what we want.”

As for the view, it’s just a bonus.

“While I wouldn’t ever complain about looking at this view every day, I know some restaurants rely on their view or location and then fall down in the other areas that are more important,” Giovanni explains.

“The food, the ambiance, the experience is what we strive for our diners, and then the view is the extra.”

The secret to success

“To have a restaurant like Pilu, and to stay relevant is challenging,” Marilyn explains.

“Twenty years ago, there weren’t that many restaurants and they were quite accessible to most people, but over time, with so many more choices now and changing economics, it’s not the same.

“While we don’t strive for them, we want to maintain the recognitions we have received, like awards and great reviews, but to do that, we can’t keep doing the same things.”

Continually evolving menus, wine lists and the style of service help Pilu stay relevant.

Although, one staple is the Sardinian suckling pig.

“People come from all over Sydney for the suckling pig – Eastern Suburbs, Western Suburbs,” Giovanni adds.

After surviving COVID-19 and lockdowns, Pilu now does more events, holds monthly literary lunches and continues to look at how to meet the needs of their regular diners.

Pilu's view is just a bonus. Image via Instagram
Pilu’s view is just a bonus. Image via Instagram

“Often three-quarters of our diners are here for a special occasion, and while we love being part of those special moments, we also want them to come more often,” Marilyn says.

“People are also looking for value for money, and when you think of Pilu, you don’t often think it’s a cheap dining experience.

“So, we are introducing more affordable menu items and looking at different options for the same great Pilu experience.”

Which is how the introduction of the mid-week two course lunch and the early Sunday tasting menu started – the entire months of March and April booked out very quickly.

With recent rising costs of living, Marilyn adds they need to keep an even closer eye on costs so they can be around for another twenty years.

AcquaFresca, Pilu’s more casual sibling, closed its doors in February at the Harbord Diggers. Marilyn assures us this doesn’t mean they’re winding down, but rather ramping up.

“AcquaFresca took up a lot of time and energy which we want to refocus on other projects, like consultancy, producing and distributing Bottarga (Sardinia’s favourite seasoning), offsite events and more,” she says.

They have also just signed another 10 year lease, with an additional 5 years to follow. So Pilu is going nowhere.

Finally, the good stuff: Food and Celebrations

Pilu will soon announce their 20th anniversary calendar of events (with the big party in August – the official 2-0).

“We have a number of events planned,” Marilyn says.

“We have been so well supported by the Northern Beaches community and we are so extremely grateful that there will be several no charge events as our thanks for everyone’s support.

“There will also be cooking classes for children and adults, collaborations with chefs that have worked at Pilu in the last 20 years and collaborations with some of Giovanni’s mentors.”

Giovanni Pilu. Image supplied.
Giovanni Pilu. Image supplied.

But the real question is… what are their favourite dishes?

Well, for Giovanni it has a lot to do with the fact that he was only introduced to seafood when he was 18 (as he lived in the Sardinian hills where seafood was rare).

“My favourite, at the moment, is the Murray Cod (currently on the Pilu menu). And I also love pasta, and I recommend the spaghetti with Australian Bay lobster,” he says.

The lobster dish is also Marilyn’s favourite.

“But, I always likes to start with freshly shucked Sydney Rock oysters and a glass of Franciacorta bubbles!” she adds.

 

This article was written in appreciation for the tremendous support Pilu has shown both Manly Observer and a number of local charities. (And in appreciation of its incredible food and wine).

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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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