“No precise measurements,” says Adrian, laughing. The co-owner of Il Nido and Cin Cin restaurants is prepping ingredients for dinner service in Thirroul as his chef organises herbs in the kitchen. The wood-fire oven is in an open corner of the cosy space, divided from diners by a short wall, allowing for everyone that eats here to see and smell every pizza that is ordered.
“Both entire menus have come from my family. My Nonna, her recipes, handed down over time. My mother and father too. There's an authenticity to what we do because of our heritage.”
One family, two restaurants. The Giulanis have been sharing their Italian heritage with Illawarra diners both through warm, intimate atmospheres for over 40 years. Both in Balgownie with Il Nido and in Thirroul with Cin Cin, they have cultivated a loyal customer base by focusing on soulful home style cooking.
For Adrian, who works across both venues, it is a natural progression from his family home. "I don't know any other way to do it! It's fantastic that people come in and feel as if they have sat down at our family table. My parents [Giulio and Diana] have always done it this way and I grew up with it, I still love it, coming to work every day with our teams and sharing this food with our customers."
The food across both restaurants is infused with the family heritage, with the majority of ingredients sourced direct from regions of Italy. Italian cured meats, cheese and wine join local vegetables and house made sauces, bringing a rural village feel to each dish that is served. For the communities that surround these venues, a dinner at either is a way to go out but also stay home – the warmth of the dining rooms is the constant comment for patrons.
In keeping with the family atmosphere, both kitchens are a hub of activity. Once service starts, the orders are knocked out precisely. The teams at Il Nido and Cin Cin have been working with Adrian for some time, which especially in the Illawarra can be hard for restaurant owners. That the workers continue to show loyalty and enjoy their hours is a testament to what the Giulani family have built, with their staff seen as an extended family - welcomed with open arms and nurtured over time. There is a cheeky sense of humour throughout each service alongside the strong work ethic, Adrian leading by example with a grin on his face.
While pasta and pizza are the main drawcards, there is a strong range of seafood options with sizzling garlic tiger prawns served in sugo, calamari fritti lightly dusted in semolina with rocket and feta, grilled baby octopus with salad, and napoletana black mussels in sugo with chilli the standout favourites amongst the repeat customers. A full vegan menu is also on offer at Cin Cin.
Arguably the hero dish across both restaurants is the Cheese Wheel – spaghetti in a creamy truffle sauce, finished in the top of a large wheel of Pecorino, brought table-side to serve. Like seasoning a cast iron pan, each wheel of cheese that is brought out of the kitchen has a strong depth of flavour the deeper the pecorino is used, balanced against the pasta and truffle.
The pastas are handmade in both locations, importantly shortening the cooking time for busy service while also continuing the authentic home-made approach. Watching the chefs take Nonna's recipe and create pasta is an exercise in efficiency – learned techniques repeated so often they become second nature, resulting in a light pasta that beautifully complements the various in-house sauces. Speaking of sauces - wander into either restaurant and try not to smile as the simmering bolognese hits your nostrils.
The runaway leader for take-away orders is pizza, with Cin Cin building on the success that Il Nido established, offering a few newer variations to a menu that clearly works. Il Nido has become a local staple through Balgownie and surrounds, with diners commenting nothing but compliments to the taste and texture of the pizzas that fire out of the kitchen. For Cin Cin, up against a Crust franchise and two established local pizza offerings in Thirroul, they have proven that cooking with soul provides a point of difference, as the constant wave of take-away pizza orders on weekend nights. The recipe for their pizzas is another family secret, Giulio having perfected a thin crust to sit underneath the range of traditional ingredient combinations.
A range of desserts that round out the rustic menus. Combined with Italian cocktails, beers and wine, there is a good chance that you will roll out of Il Nido and Cin Cin feeling like you won't eat for a week. The Tim Tam Nutella dessert pizza is a popular favourite, with families and couples alike warring over who gets the final scraps of the dish.
Both in Balgownie and Thirroul, residents are spoiled for choice with fine eating establishments. There are refined options, chain options, casual morning options... though none that capture the spirit and feeling of a family and history as well as the Giulani family restaurants. In hospitality it is hard to maintain success over an extended period and with so many competitors in tight communities, it is a clear sign that Il Nido and Cin Cin have tapped into a working sentiment when they boast both enticing menus and a loyal customer base.
There would be many people happy for them to continue expanding into new areas of the Illawarra – though don't mention that to their devoted followers. More than anything, all they want is to continue being welcomed into the Giulani household, one table at a time.
Details for each restaurant and booking a table:
Shop 1, 154 Balgownie Road, Balgownie NSW
02 4284 8664
Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm till late
Shop 1, 382 - 384 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Thirroul NSW
02 4267 1653
Wed to Sat 5pm to late
Sun 12pm to 3pm, 5pm to late
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Editor: Claire Monks
Writer: Mitch Crowle
Photog: Mitch Crowle