How to ‘Rome’ in Melbourne: Restaurants

Food is life in Italy.

And food and Italy are life for me!

Sadly I even dream about Italian and regional cuisine when I’m not in Italy!

I’m not there at the moment because I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a (typically erratic) Melbourne summer (you pick your battles hey!) but while away from Rome where do I go to enjoy an Italian meal?

Firstly it’s not exactly in the direction of Lygon Street, Carlton – Melbourne’s Little Italy.

Brunetti: A Carlton institution for coffee and pastriesDon’t get me wrong now, I love spending time in Carlton and high on my list are Brunetti (for ricotta cannoli, Italian hot chocolate and my favourite promesse d’amore – gorgeous little pastries filled with the most divine silk-like custard), DOC Pizzeria, Carlton Espresso Bar, Ti Amo Restaurant, King & Godfrey gourmet food store and a couple of places in the Rathdowne Street area.

But for me, Lygon Street is more about the history of an Italian community attempting to find its feet and assimilate in the post-war migration era – it’s a living reminder of this journey.

Visit King & Godfrey, Carlton for your gourmet food needs

But it’s not where you find authentic Italian food.

Rather than Italian simplicity, here you’ll find (and one of my biggest gripes especially since becoming an adopted Roman) – wait for it – carbonara with cream!!!

The quality of some of the low to mid range options in this area are not dissimilar to what you might be served in real touristy areas of Italy. Romans – think food at a restaurant right in Piazza Navona or Piazza Rotonda, at the foot of the Pantheon.

So here are the top 5 places I turn to when I want to channel Rome or Italy right here in the heart of Melbourne!

1) Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons
Crown Casino, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank
I love love love eating at what is colloquially known in Melbourne as GAS – the brainchild of Rob Marchetti and Maurizio Terzini of Icebergs in Bondi, North Bondi Italian and (the original) Caffe and Cucina fame.

It’s funky and their design concept is apparently that of a modern style roman trattoria. This element doesn’t really scream out at me (being a Rome expert nowadays and all:-)) but it’s extremely stylish, funky and with great food and service, I absolutely love eating here.

It has a really cool vibe with waiters dressed in 1950s style white Italian delicatessen coats walking around the place and cutting up bread and cold meats to serve to you straight up.

The burrata at GAS is to die for!

For starters I love the buratta (Italian mozzarella cheese that’s firm on the outside with a soft and creamy filling) that comes served with hot rosemary and sea salt focaccia and silverbeet and spinach risotto balls. Their salumi are great with the San Daniele prosciutto a favorite of mine and their house produced extra virgin olive oil is just divine!

My one gripe is menu change because I have fallen in love with a few items on the menu that are no longer on offer (like the saffron risotto with pork sausage and bone marrow) but the beauty of their menu actually lies in variety and this constant change.

Most recently I’ve become a fan of their orrechiete (ear shaped pasta) with a puréed broccoli, chilli and anchovy sauce. Their spaghetti arrabbiata with tomato, crab and chilli is also a crowd pleaser, impressively coming served in a paper bag!

And for dessert it has to be the marscapone and grappa (Italian liqueur) soaked raspberry tart – every single time. I have also tasted their mixed cannoli and chocolate mousse pot, but I just cannot go pass the tart and the thought of not ordering it when I’m there is making me nervous just writing about it! (you would have established by now how serious I take my desert! :-))

2) Bar Idda
132 Lygon Street
Brunswick East

Eating at Bar Idda for me is like being transported to one of my favorite regions in Italy – Sicilia!

Specialising in homestyle Sicilian fare, this place is packed out just about every night of the week… So much so, that on the few occasions I’ve been there, we’ve sat at the bar to eat! The menu is simple but delicious and authentically captures the true essence and diversity of Sicilian cuisine, which has been influenced throughout history by the Romans, Arabs, French, Greek & Spanish.

A true Sicilian feast at Bar Idda

My picks are the traditional arancini (golden fried Italian rice balls with beef and pork ragu), the zeppole (savoury potato, parsley and anchovy donuts served with a yoghurt dressing) and the eggplant parmigiana – layered with tomato, basil and pecorino cheese. Their pasta dishes are also great and I recommend you do not leave without trying their traditional Sicilian ricotta cannoli.

The owners pride themselves on their ‘Italian eat-at-home share-style’ menu and are so passionate about Sicilian food that they are currently promoting a culinary tour through the region this year in September. Check out their website for more information and take my advice and get down to Bar Idda as soon as you can!

3) Italian Waiters Club (now the Waiters Restaurant)
20 Meyers Place

This is just about one of the only places outside Rome where I can justify ordering a carbonara.  As an adopted Roman, I take this dish seriously and all things considered, the IWC prepare a pretty good one.

If you didn’t know this place existed, you wouldn’t exactly stumble across it. Located in a city laneway and up a flight of stairs it maintains its 1950s look and feel (think laminex, wood panelling and a mismatch of old chairs).

Legend has it that since 1947, Italian and Spanish waiters in the city would meet here late after work to unwind over a plate of pasta, glass of wine and a game of scopa (an old italian card game).

The menu is extra simple, pasta and risotto are as authentic as anything you’ll find outside of Italy and their main courses aren’t bad either. It’s not flashy but the food is fantastic and I love it!

4) Caffe e Cucina
581 Chapel Street
South Yarra

When I feel I need a real fix of Italian – and not just food, but ambience and Italian waiters 🙂 – I head down to this old favorite and South Yarra institution. Granted, I don’t think it’s as good as it was in its heyday, but they still serve up good quality and simple Italian food. And anyway, I just love watching the Italian waiters interact!

The menu here is fairly seasonal so changes often, but some of my picks include Risotto Ortolano with a green vegetable ragu, marscapone and gremolata oil. For dessert I can’t go past the honey pannacotta served with Italian biscottini.

5) The Grill – Grossi Florentino
80 Bourke Street

Suggestions on where to find good Italian food in Melbourne would not be complete or for that matter, legitimate, without mentioning Guy Grossi – Australia’s best and most renowned Italian chef.

Grossi Florentino is a bonafide Melbourne institution. I’ve been dining at the Cellar Bar (downstairs) for years.  It’s the restaurants’ casual dining area where the menu is seasonal and you can grab a lunch or dinner with simple Italian meals.

The Grill: Crema bruciata with orange blosssom, almond milk sorbet and honey crumble

Upstairs, the Restaurant is the ultimate Italian fine dining experience. I can remember vividly the taste of the stuffed fried zucchini flowers, veal saltimbocca and chocolate tasting plate I had many years ago.

But recently I dined at Guy Grossi’s The Grill. I wasn’t disappointed.

I recommend you try the baccala (salted cod) croquettes, white fish ceviche and pancetta filled panzerotti for starters, the spaghetti al pesto trapanese (pesto of garlic, tomato, almond and chilli) and for dessert, the crema bruciata – an Italian style creme brûlée custard dessert with orange blossom, almond milk sorbet and honey crumble. Their sommelier is also great at selecting wines to match your menu.

(Oh and Guy Grossi’s latest venture, Merchant at Rialto Towers is not bad either with a Venetian inspired menu and my favorite – many risottos to choose from!)

So what about you? Where do you go for a great Italian feed in Melbourne?

Buon appetito!

Signing off from Melbourne (but back in the eternal city shortly!)

Baci, Maria

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