For weeks, it was the name we’d heard most on the lips of our food-obsessed friends: Alta Trattoria. What could be so extraordinary about yet another Italian joint in a city brimming with some of the best of them? We couldn’t yet know, but we weren’t about to wait a minute longer to find out. After all, pasta is good, but good pasta is everything – even when you’re privileged enough to have already tasted some of the silkiest, sauciest and slurp-worthiest in all the land.
Do your research though, and you’ll quickly discover that Alta Trattoria is not, in fact, just “another Italian joint”. The restaurant’s specialty is a little different, zeroing in on the northern Italian region of Piedmont, which is located at the foot of the Alps and home to some of the boot nation’s most prized culinary exports. In addition, the team behind Alta Trattoria includes Luke Drum (Carlton Wine Room), chef McKay Wilday (Victoria by Farmers Daughters), Carlo Grossi (Ombra, Grossi Florentino) and vino expert James Tait (King and Godfree). A formidable crew like this at the helm is nothing to sniff at – so off we trotted on a Friday night.
Tucked away off Brunswick Street, a tomato-red-painted restaurant quietly hums with good cheer and Italo-pop music. One dining area looks out onto the graffiti-decorated side street, the other’s nestled against an imposing bar. The friendly, bustling atmosphere belies a hidden thread of formality that ties the whole operation together with the finesse of a more upscale diner.
Our table is draped in white, on top of which a leatherbound 15-page drinks list contains wines separated by region. Italian reds range from a $70 bottle of Poderi Cellario to a $3,000 bottle of Giacomo Conterno Monfortino. For the uninitiated, a food menu that’s virtually written entirely in Italian could be intimidating, but the warmth and generosity of our server swiftly snuffs out any potential blunders. You’ll be talked through the full menu from start to finish in a way that feels conversational rather than fussy, asked about dietaries and offered genuine guidance on portion sizes.
This interaction sets the tone for all of the service we experience in the evening, spearheaded by seasoned, caring staff who glide around like swans, topping us up with water when we need it and keeping our table on their radar without attacking it mid-convo – a graceful dance yet to be mastered by most restaurants.
We start with what every great Italian meal should start with: bread. This one’s a cloud of focaccia, impeccably salted in all its yeasty splendour and sumptuously melty in your mouth when dunked into the slosh of A-grade olive oil on the side.
The Alpine Daisy cocktail, wheat-hued and perfumed with elderflower from the mountains, tastes creamy but also miraculously fruity and tart. It’s not too sweet and goes down a bit like a boozy sorbet. More cocktails like this one, please. My partner nurses a glass of chocolate nougat-scented barbera, which I can’t stop myself from sipping in wonder.
Next comes a plate of salame felino with parmigiano. It’s an umami match made in heaven, the sharp cheese boasting crunchy crystalline bits that pop in your mouth when you bite into them, and the salami sweet and subtly peppery. We then dig into the flan di ricotta scattered with fresh herbs. It’s warm and so light it almost tastes air-whipped. A cleansing Rizzi ‘Sterbu’ chardonnay to accompany is stripped-back elegance in a glass. Gorg.
Starters demolished, we move onto the mains. The tajarin ragu is one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes and after just one mouthful, it’s not hard to see why. Luscious gamey rabbit and uniformly slim strips of tajarin made with egg yolks are tossed together to create a dish that’s somehow both satiny rich and delicate at the same time. It’s a ten out of ten.
The tubular gnocchi della val varaita with hazelnuts that arrive next evoke a rural memory I can’t quite place, and they’re deeply savoury and gratifying, swimming in a sage butter sauce. A touch of lemon lifts the dish beautifully, which we enjoy alongside a crisp mixed leaf salad with rose-red radish discs for contrast.
Can we do one more? We certainly can. Painstakingly rolled eggplant involtini arrive bathed in salsa di parmigiano elixir. The dish is velvety, sunny with the vegetal sweetness of onion and red peppers, and for such a simple dish, impressive in its depth of flavour.
We end the night with an old-school Italian favourite: zabaglione. Alta Trattoria’s is served with rhubarb, vermouth and Savoiardi biscuits on the side for dipping. Like everything else here, it manages to be both rich and light – a sublime dessert. We also can’t resist chasing our meal with a few more wines, and every drop sings with the signature character of its age and place.
And that’s precisely the key element that makes Alta Trattoria so charming: a reverence for the Piedmontese region and a confidence in the natural character of the ingredients - no theatrics or pomp needed. If there’s only one new Italian restaurant you try out this year, Alta Trattoria deserves the top spot.