Best Italian in Melbourne v Rome
When it comes to Italian food it's hard to go past iconic restaurants in Italy. Yet Melbourne is endowed with its share of standout Italian restaurants including Il Solito Posto, Lupino, Sapore, Bottega, The Italian, Church Street Enoteca and Grossi Florentino to name a few.
What do you think? Do we compare well?
Check out the new and exciting Romeo Chef and Baker in Rome and then some of my favourites in Melbourne...
Romeo Chef and Baker - Rome
Rome restaurant scene : Romeo Chef & Baker is the latest hipster restaurant to enter the eternal city's gourmet scene, and its already a hit with the locals.
Situated in the Plati district, not far from the Vatican, Romeo's the marriage of the Roscioli baking dynasty (featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations) and one of Rome's hottest chefs, the Michelin-starred Cristina Bowerman.
Opened just before Christmas, Romeo's not at all created for tourists. You won't find spotters out the front, luring you to chequered tablecloths while speaking in cliches. Nor will you find an English menu, or indeed much English at all spoken around the room. What we find visiting Romeo on this cool Roman evening is a chic room with a modern design emphasising futuristic white and red lighting fixtures.
The place is packed and the vibe is fantastic. Its not showy or pretentious. Everyone's looking relaxed yet part of the scene. At night it's an achievement to get a booking here.
Walking to our table takes us past the salumi bar. Think your best Roman delicatessen, thanks to the Rosciolis brothers. Breads, cheeses, pizza rossa, the best proscuitto, it's all here and all available day and night.
For us its a signpost of the quality of produce to come. We begin with free pizza bread, some juicy salami, and the freshest ricotta, drizzled in oil and sprinkled with ground black pepper.
Looking around, many young couples are sticking with the salumi theme. Why not spend many happy hours here with simply a bottle of barolo or prosecco, full of conversation and laughter, lingering over a succession of plates of antipasti of the highest order?
But for us it's primi, in the form of a ravioli dish that local food blogger Gina Tringali describes as "the star dish". Homemade and filled with indulgently good campagnola, it's surrounded by a rich pumpkin foam and crunchy hazelnuts. A traditional dish with quality produce, modernised with innovative touches and contemporary techniques. That sums up Cristina Bowerman's approach.
Or there's a vegetable terrine, a beautiful presentation of rolled zucchini, eggplant and red peppers, with the crunch of breadcrumbs. Its simple, healthy and delicious!
The secondi dishes also build on tradition. Chestnut vendors abound in Rome on city streets, and Cristina has no hesitation to incorporate a chestnut puree into her dish of slow-cooked beef cheeks with potato done two ways and sweet onions. Or there's the uplifting of a rich broth of quail and bean casserole with sprinkles of pomegranate.
The service throughout is fantastic. The staff are run off their feet yet nothing's too much trouble, be it a wine suggestion or a discussion about the produce.
And now for dessert, and we opt for the tiramisu. It's like no tiramisu we've seen. Christina's version has a chocolate ball of creamy, coffee goodness. The sponge stays separate, rather than being layered inside, thereby creating the colour contrast on the plate which is striking. So familiar, yet so different!
No wonder Christina tells me at the end of the evening : "Tradition is very very, important. We must honour it...but then we must also progress the cuisine. New ideas and new ingredients should be a part of our approach here in Rome, we shouldn't just rest on what we've always done. I want our customers to enjoy all that Rome food has to offer, in fresh and exciting ways."
From the look of the packed, happy room tonight, there's no doubt the beautiful people of Rome agree.
Romeo Chef & Baker can be found at Via Silla 26A.
Church Street Enoteca - Richmond
Church Street Enoteca continues to impress with its creative modern twist on Italian cuisine. It exudes charm and finery and has been a consistently acclaimed dining experience in Melbourne for many years. This is not a stodgy Italian pasta and pizza experience but the menu brims with flavour, freshness and imagination.
Church Street Richmond has a growing culinary scene but the icon is still Church Street Enoteca in its historical and elegant building (ex Steelworks and luxury cars). Come here for a great lunch or dinner but also this place also lends itself to the "special occasion". In fact while we were there the couple at the next table got engaged... (If you ever read this, all the best!)
Chef Sebastian is a passionate chef who chases the seasons using quality fresh ingredients, makes everything from scratch, keeps a simplicity, shows loads of technique, focusses on regions and is not afraid to make changes to the menu. He has built up relationships with quality suppliers - even the fish comes with a docket of when and where the fish was caught, and the name of the fisherman...
We started our dining experience (as guests at Church Street Enoteca) with some appealing entrees such as the Vitello Tonnato - Veal girello poached in vino bianco, lemon and garlic with seared Albacore tuna and smoked garlic aoli. The combination of veal and tuna was compelling. Not to mention the Tasmanian sashimi grade tuna was pretty fine. Great textures, flavours and presentation.
Church Street Enoteca has a fitout of class and style with 1930s overtures in its long dining room. Immediately you feel a sense of occasion when you arrive. This is not another grungy restaurant in Melbourne but classic original timber floor, crisp white tablecloths, large Italian artwork on the walls, and an art deco elegance.
The Hiramasa Kingfish Crudo featured thinly sliced kingfish served raw with red onion and scallop salsa, peperonata, micro leaves and green tomato jelly. The kingfish farmed in South Australia was superb as a ceviche style - with an attractive accompaniment of the other elements. Plenty of technique here. This was so delicate and delightful...
Moving from Antipasti to Primi, the Scampi and Squid Ink Risotto featured Carnaroli rice, grilled scampi, poached black tomatoes, and basil cress. The rissotto was served to us as half and half Squid Ink as well as the Char-grilled Corn Risotto with char-grilled corn, lemon and chives.... The half and half was because we were sampling the menu. We enjoyed both the risotto dishes but I've a penchant for the squid ink version. This was like classy comfort food for me, and we could detect Parmesan cheese blended into the dish. Creamy risotto goodness.
The modern twist on Italian cuisine was also displayed in the Crab and Shrimp Ravioli with Baccala featuring crab and shrimp mousse filled ravioli, salt code, preserved lemon and horseradish. There's some strong punchy flavours! I enjoyed the ravioli itself and the lemon hit with a hint of horseradish - and the filling of crab and shrimp was compelling. This was a fresh take on ravioli indeed.
The Flavours of Duck was the highlight for me as a dish which used plenty of technique and elements of the duck including a beautiful pate. It featured roasted duck breast, port and plum braised duck leg, liver parfait, fennel, witlof and orange and oregano gel. The dish was rich but the fennel and witlof cut through wonderfully. This was a high note dish and an absolute standout.
The Umbrian Style Pork Chops featured pork chops, salted pork belly, fava beans, cannelini beans, fresh herbs and bean salad. You almost felt you were eating a health dish such was the balance! The pork chops cooked wonderfully well with various types of beans to cut through the fat and richness. Great concept. The salted pork belly was more a smattering throughout the dish. This dish was great way to enjoy pork. Here are the two mains side by side...
Church Street Enoteca is a restaurant of wine enthusiasm and so we enjoyed matching wines with assistance from the Sommelier, who is also the manager here. With the name "enoteca" you know this is a serious wine destination. We enjoyed Italian, French and Australian wines here.
Dessert was also a hit with a French based play on White Chocolate featuring brown butter icecream, white chocolate snow, white chocolate parfait, caramelised white chocolate sorbet and a smattering of passionfruit. Again, there were plenty of elements and this was a fun, indulgent dish with great presentation.
Service here is top notch with experienced and knowledgeable wait staff. They aim for the classic dining experience.
Church Street Enoteca boasts some great function facilities including this private room that caters for around 12 people...
Church Street Enoteca is a great option for those looking for a sense of occasion, fine and creative cuisine, and excellent service. For a fine dining restaurant the portions are generous. Parking is also not a problem in the precinct, particularly at night. Highly recommended.
Sapore - St Kilda
Sapore is a stellar one hatted (The Age Good Food Guide) Italian restaurant in a city which excels at Italian cuisine. Sapore means taste or flavour in Italian and Sapore brings a cacophony of flavour to its every dish. We enjoyed several signature dishes at Sapore and all exceeded expectation.
Sapore carries an air of sophistication but also the ability to relax with modern décor, comfortable seating, and chilled music. The chic ambience is amplified from being in St Kilda by the sea with amazing views of the bay and parklands. As you dine you can admire the ships in the bay as well as the odd windsurfer. Lighting is dim with candles and a spectacular retro collection of pendant lights reaching down from the ceiling. Spaciousness is felt as the frontage is opened up onto eclectic Fitzroy St.
Sapore brings respect to the Italian way in its cooking but there is joy in bringing a twist to classic dishes. The team here is experienced and creative featuring Simon Moss as head chef. Simon likes to cook Modern Italian way but with a French influence.
The entrees were completely satisfying and exceeded expectation. We enjoyed the Saporetti – a collection of tastes. The standout was the beef carpaccio – surely one of the best carpaccios in Melbourne. Genius from the chef who has taken a classic Italian dish and with a twist turned it into a deconstructed Caesar salad with white anchovies, parmesan, cos lettuce, organic egg and aoli. The portion is large and the presentation superb. We found this moorish and a compelling dish.
The Prosciutto with fig and rockmelon was also superb. The flavour combination was excellent with the richness of the prosciutto and the sweetness of the rockmelon and fig cutting through. There was a high note of mint, a clever addition. This was another entrée that was outstanding, of substance, but not heavy.
Another standout was the Arancini. Again with a twist this classic Italian dish featured arancini full of creamy fine spinach and melted cheese rather than plain version with rice.
The Seafood linguine was sublime, with large fresh seafood of prawns, calamari, mussels and fish with chilli and parsley. The pasta was fresh and alive and the sauce tasty but not overpowering. Subtle use of parsley and a hit of chilli made for a stellar dish.
As for the mains, the 12 Hour Greenvale Farm Rare Breed Pork Belly with cabbage, fennel, granny smith apple sauce, and a crisp crochette, was another amazing dish. The pork was perfectly cooked with crispy skin and tender inside. The granny smith apple sauce was superb providing welcome sweetness as a classic match with pork. The salad also cut through the richness of the pork. And a surprise but welcome addition was the flavoursome crochette. While it didn’t need it I enjoyed the dish with shoe string fries.
The Duck “tres modi” was another outstanding signature dish which came with baby spinach, butternut pumpkin, and Masala-sultana sauce. Each section of duck was cooked to perfection and the accompaniments were sublime such as the Masala-sultana sauce to include sweetness to counter the richness of the duck. The terrine was exquisite, the duck leg wonderful and the duck breast slightly pink and not overcooked.
Other options on the menu also looked attractive such as the House made potato gnocchi with braised rabbit and truffle butter, and the Hopkins River eye fillet, baked potato with leek, thyme and Parmesan and red wine sauce.
Just when we thought it had been a memorable night, the desserts took it to another level. The Limoncello semifreddo with Manuka honey sabayon, honeycomb and fresh berries must surely be one of the best desserts in Melbourne. We were told the chef makes the lemon liqueur on site and uses quality fresh lemons and Polish spirit.
The Limoncello was a symphony of taste on the palate. It came with fig and berries that could be dipped in manuka honey then combined with the limoncello – a killer combination. You get a hit of lemon without the bitterness of lemon. Limoncello is a staple of Southern Italy and is now fast growing in global popularity.
A classic favourite, the Tiramisu, was another highlight. It’s advertised as “The Lucchesi” family recipe with house made walnut bread. Having experienced many takes on this dish across Melbourne I found this to be one of the best. It comes served in a large glass. The layers of tiramisu were all finely constructed.
The wine list is outstanding and complements the fine dining options.
Coffee here was also excellent, often lacking at fine dining restaurants. My short macchiato was superb.
The service here was friendly, engaging and professional. Of significance was that each dish was briefly explained as they put it on the table – evidence of a top notch restaurant. The restaurant manager Jenna was warm and superb at front of house.
Of great value are the Signature nights – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday where you get 3 courses for $45 including a glass of wine. The beauty is that the dishes on offer are actually all signature dishes.
Several of my friends consider Sapore to be a favourite and a restaurant of consistent quality and flair. We were impressed with every dish and the overall experience was outstanding. Sapore is a super impressive Italian restaurant.
Check out their website at www.sapore.com.au
Lupino - Little Collins CBD
Lupino means 'little wolf' in Italian and this little wolf howls with Italian class and style. You can't miss the quirky red neon wolf sign on the outside of the building. Lupino is about simple things done well... They do an excellent job with classic Italian dishes with creativity and finesse! Lupino is able to bring in that rustic and "homely" feel we look for in Italian dining.
Lupino is also a modern take on Italian cafe - something you might find in Rome. White rendered walls, brick with lime green cushion panels... Stools at marble top bar, quality furniture and a polished concrete floor give a chic ambience...
This blog has been delayed after my visit a few months ago. I geared up my USA great friend and his family having recommended Lupino a few weeks ago but the restaurant was closed for rennovations.
Lupino is somewhere you'd be happy to bring someone for your first date. It has the air of a sense of occasion. It is however curious to see stools in front of the open kitchen rather than in front of the bar. Stools are down the short side of the bar along the window...
Staff dressed in white are friendly and service good but not outstanding (at least not on the night we were there). A warm greeting was given on arrival is a positive. We had three different waiters during the night...
When asked about signature dishes there was a hesitation... Followed by 'we have a couple of good pastas'... Could that could be the problem - a lack of clearly defined signature dishes?
Funky lighting and tasteful spotlights create excellent mood. Tasteful tables although surprised by how small they were! We had to place our wines glasses on an unstable window ledge to make room for our dishes. Certainly no room for personal effects.
A huge jar of Nutella on the kitchen was a source of amusement - until I saw it was imported Italian Nutella that formed part of a dessert... The open kitchen is great enhancing the homely feel.
The food is impressive. The Gnocci Gorgonzola was a hit. However four cheeses gnocchi declared by one waiter turned out to be 2 cheeses gnocci declared by another waiter - it was delicious without being spectacular. In fact it was one cheese Gnocci with Parmesan sprinkled on top!
The light gnocchi well cooked with a rich but not overpowering cheese sauce - with a great punch of Gorgonzola veined Italian blue cheese.
The Baked Polpetti in Sugo was great. Sauce excellent... Golf ball meatballs. Probably my favourite on the nite. Delightful pork and veal creation with the sweet sugo. A value starter that was homey...
Curiously we were handed 'tasting plates' that were the size of tiny bread plates. I thought these plates were just too small.
The Taglierini with Prawns and Mussels and Fresh Tomato sauce was well done with al dente pasta, large fresh prawns and tasty mussels. But there wasn't enough sauce to my liking. The idea was to scoop from the bowl of chopped chilli and oil and drizzle over the pasta. Once again good but not the high notes.
The Tagliata Porterhouse steak Medium Rare was served on the rare side and was tasty. The side of spinach and the side of fries were excellent complements. Simple things done well...
As for dessert - the Paper wrap cassata was nondescript and didn't hit the high notes. The Tiramisu was good but lacked some of the crunch I'm used to and enjoy. The layers of sponge fingers were extremely thin.
Lupino does well with its selection of wines and we enjoyed some interesting Australian and Italian wines.
Lupino is an outstanding Italian restaurant that brings a modern take on classic dishes.
Bottega - Bourke St CBD
Bottega features engaging waiters who look sharp and are knowledgeable. There’s fine linen on the tables and diners feel a sense of occasion as well as conviviality.
The wine list is well thought out and tailored to the menu, featuring great Victorian wines as well as the best of Italy. It’s a wine list which involves wines consumers will recognise, not just a list for fellow sommeliers.
The Bruschetta is also a sublime dish with toasted bread topped with baccala mantecato and vincotto. That is, delicious black salted cod. A triumph.
Zucchini flowers with buffalo ricotta is a delicate and flavoursome option.
Come to Bottega for amazing pasta including the Agnolloti (a kind of ravioli from the Piedmont region) filled with roasted tomato and burrata, with smoked eggplant puree, lemon rocket and balsamico. This age old Italian classic is superbly cooked at Bogetta with perfect pasta and great flavour profile in the stuffing.
A highlight for me is the Chargrilled ox tongue , salsa verde, anchovy and croutons. The meat is slow cooked and melts in the mouth with the rich but not overpowering flavours. Interesting with anchovy but the salt combines superbly with the meat. Croutons give great crunch.
Even the coffee here (Genovese) is excellent with the long mac superb.
All in all, I feel Bottega is a restaurant that sits in the top echelons of Italian cuisine in a precinct and a city that does Italian cuisine well.
The Italian - Flinders Lane CBD
The Italian speaks for itself, an iconic Melbourne restaurant for the big occasion! The masterstroke of the brilliant Roberto Scheriani, this is real authentic Italian through and through! One of the best, if not the best, Italian restaurant in Melbourne! Elegance, romance, charm, quality, service! Up the escalator to this iconic restaurant in a premier building which houses a gallery, stockbrokers, bankers and the type.
The Italian has an incredible layout with several different precincts. Choose between the outside area, the area near the large bar, or go upstairs to different levels with an amazingly high ceiling and spectacular light fittings (modern looking chandeliers). I love a restaurant with floor to ceiling windows! The restaurant is large and spacious, and seats 160 people.
The Italian is a one hatted restaurant and the class shows. I ventured there feeling like a northern Italian culinary adventure and came away well satisfied. The service is excellent with a friendly waiter showing me to a table then promptly taking my order, with a recommendation of course. He was extremely attentive and kept bringing me fresh bread and butter. At no time did I feel a lack of connection and helpfulness – making me feel the service is something akin to exclusive hotel service I’ve experienced in places like Singapore. I ordered a coffee rather than consult the more than extensive wine list (as I was on my work lunch break and had to return to the office soon). The coffee, by the way, was excellent and strong with superb latte art.
Taking photos in fine dining situations is never easy as you don’t want to be invasive. I took a few snaps without overdoing it.
The lunch menu has some incredible options from tasty Primi dishes like “The Italian” tuna to serious Carne (including Twice Roasted Half Duck, Char Grilled Spatchcock, Quail, and Rib Eye) as well as great Pesce (including Ligurian Fish Stew, Wild Barramundi Fillet and Scampi Alla Griglia).
I went for a pasta selection, tossing up between the Spaghettini, Blue Swimmer Crab, tomato and chilli, Ox Cheek Ravioli and the Fresh Rigatoni with Lamb Shoulder and Rosemary Ragu. The waiter recommended the lamb so I went with that.
This was an unbelievably great dish. It looked great on the plate when it arrived with its textures and colours and well put together! Sublime lamb shoulder pieces cooked to absolute perfection (ie not dry but tender) tossed through the perfectly cooked al dente pasta. The sauce had a great consistency and the waiter told me the secret was to cook the sauce in with the meat. The sauce had a great tomato base and smacked of fresh herbs (rosemary and fresh basil – yum!), some parmesan cheese, and a little wine. It was amazing. And the dish came piping hot which was an added bonus. I noted the generosity of lamb pieces in the pasta. I savoured every morsel.
Loved the ambience of The Italian. Loved the leather chairs, light fittings, timber floors below and carpet upstairs, the sense of space and the almost industrial ceiling over the highest section. Love the use of red including red leather booths (and the red signage on the outside of the restaurant). You can see the chefs working away in the large kitchen through the window. This looks like a real team at work like the Team Ferrari! Italian crooner music filtering through adds to the romance and ambience. Even has a lift from the ground floor. Many business groups were enjoying their lunchtime at The Italian. I would love to return for a romantic evening with my wife! And to try the desserts including The Italian Tira Misu. I was warmly greeted and farewelled when I left! Vive The Italian.