It maybe cheesy to say ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’, but a bit more cheese wouldn’t go astray in some so-called dining hotspots, where it is unfortunately more common to feel that you are inconveniencing the establishment than being greeted as a welcome customer.
In sharp contrast to this is a hidden foodie gem, Il Volcano restaurant, which sits on the corner of a lane in a non-descript part of Hunter Street near Stewart Avenue. Inside the restaurant it is anything but non-descript; exploding in a riot of colour, quirky statues and unique decorations, while flowers and bunches of grapes framing the arched window into the open kitchen and the ceiling lit by a gypsy style chandelier.
Standing at the centre of it all is Sonja Purlija, Il Volcano’s smiling owner, chef and maître d’, who has to be one of the friendliest and most generous hosts imaginable. It’s impossible not to feel welcome here. Maybe it’s in her blood. Sonja comes from Sutomore, a small coastal town on the Adriatic Sea in Montenegro, a popular holiday destination known for its long sandy beach and vibrant nightlife.
With tourism its economic backbone Sutomore’s beach promenade is lined with bars, restaurants and entertainment venues and in such a competitive environment the only places which have survived and thrived are those which offer the best service to the town’s visitors.
Although her daughter and nephew sometimes work at the restaurant in reality Il Volcano is all Sonja. She proudly makes her own breadcrumbs from fresh bread, refuses to use frozen vegetables, cutting up her own fresh veggies for every meal. With lunch options starting at just $7.00 and the servings re-defining the word ‘hearty’ it is not surprising she has hungry regulars waiting at her door. Next time you say you are ‘famished’ or ‘faint with hunger’ come here and be fed back to life.
The restaurant feels more like a family dining room than a café, large display cabinets of glassware are crowded with framed family photos, drawings from grandchildren and mementos and keepsakes from around the world. Unusual objects are juxtaposed with the ordinary, but my favourite decoration is the splendid volcano sculpture which instead of having a pool of poisonous lava around its base instead has yellow ducks swimming happily in a pond ringing the magma spewing mountain.
Sonja and her husband came to Newcastle in 1974 and Sonja started cooking professionally clocking up 10 years at the original Il Volcano restaurant in Hamilton, which was forced to close after being damaged in the Newcastle earthquake. In 2000 Sonja set up her own restaurant for the first time, naming it in honour of the one which had been a source of such happy memories for her. Her faithful customers have followed her and it’s not surprising that she now knows them so well she talks about them as an important part of her life.
‘Welcome’ signs are scattered throughout the restaurant, but Sonja really doesn’t need any signs, Il Volcano couldn’t be more welcoming. You might be drawn in the door to explore Il Volcano’s extraordinary decor, but the real delight is meeting Sonja; you’ll leave feeling you have made a new friend.
Il Volcano, 850 Hunter Street, Newcastle West. Phone: 4962 4030. Monday-Tuesday closed, open for lunch and dinner Wednesday-Friday, open for dinner only Saturday-Sunday. Closed 16 December 2013 – 5 February 2014.
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