Look closely and you can see a twinkle in the eye of Di Stasio Carlton. It’s indiluted Latin sass and pure Italian swagger; a “this is how you do it” as it throws down the pizza gauntlet in Carlton, of all places.
Melbourne’s Little Italy has long been subject to crude ham and cruder sledges, but its stocks are certainly on the up when restaurant royalty plants its flag on Faraday Street.
It marks a fitting new chapter in the 30-plus-year legacy of Rinaldo Di Stasio’s eponymous brand, from St Kilda’s Cafe Di Stasio and its next-door bar to Spring Street’s baby sibling Città. It’s also a triumphant end point, should the indefatigable Medici of Melbourne dining wish to stop at this point and rest on his laurels.
Laurel resting at the Carlton outpost could mean taking a seat in the stunning piazza, gravel crunching underfoot, urns arrayed around the high brick walls and a 17th-century Roman fountain tinkling away merrily. Or in a series of brutalist dining rooms decorated with thought-provoking artworks by Reko Rennie. This restaurant-as-salon is a Di Stasio hallmark, as is the menu running uninterrupted from 11.30am until witching hour.
But yes, pizza. The Di Stasio carb party has always revolved around pasta but here comes Naples’ finest to cruel the unhindered run. Five red and five white based options deliver the requisite puffy crust and crisp-but-not-crackable base; in the latter camp, grunty nubbles of pork sausage mingle with bitter greens and minced red chilli on an oozing blanket of the fior di latte made each day by head chef Federico Congiu and his team.
Mixed messages are in no short supply. The tick-a-box menu could seem at odds with the prices; the tables dressed in butchers’ paper might appear to contradict the silver trays used to ferry martinis. It coalesces thanks to the drip-feed of exquisite tiny touches – the golden spoon for the extra parmesan; the candles lit on each table at dusk; the water glasses boasting the same shade of green as the neon light accents – helped by a team of linen-cad waiters whose sole job on earth could be to charm diners into a state of eager supplication.
And it’s fun. A freewheeling party summing up the irreverent Italian approach to life, which is something you could also say of the “baby pizza cloud”, like a giant savoury bomboloni topped with sugo, basil and a blizzard of cheese. Baby pizza cloud: say it three times, fast.
And do try the tripe fritters. A gateway drug to offal, they’re an easy-listening combination of crunch and salt encasing silvery braised threads. Try the “tasty fish” and pickles, an appetite-piquing tumble of white fish and oily veg that will transport you straight to a Palermo street market. And do make sure the pasta doesn’t get jealous by ordering one of its seven iterations, such as the bottarga butter-lapped fazzoletti (Ligurian “silk handkerchiefs”, since you asked) with fennel.
There are plenty of ways to jump here, whether it’s to the proteins from the wood grill (quail wrapped in pancetta nails the rustic-refined brief with aplomb) or straight to the fior di latte soft-serve, all grown up with a glug of olive oil and salt crystals. A Di Stasio menu never makes it easy, but it will certainly keep you coming back.