Melbourne's best Italian restaurants
What we have here is not so humble as an osteria. Sure, it has an underlying rustic Italian brief, exemplified by the chargrilled whole octopus brutishly splayed over a sauce made of the fiery Calabrian spreadable salami, `nduja. On the other end of the spectrum, lamb tartare arrives gussied up for the red carpet with a custardy froth of smoked eggplant, purple Congo potato crisps and winks of rosemary oil.
It’s been some years since gents were expected to keep their jackets on at all times, but it’s good to see Grossi Florentino is a restaurant that continues to sweat the small stuff. The grand Mural Room is one of Melbourne’s last bastions of lavish European dining charm where the lighting is set to dim, and the mood set upon arrival by the proffering of a handbag stool.
Gosh, the Italians do glamour well, and Bar Carolina, the new addition to Joe Mammone’s boutique Italian stable exudes Latin charm from its terrazzo foyer to its bar clad in charcoal steel. And we haven’t even mentioned the quorum of liltingly accented waiters who marshal the crowds one ‘ciao bella’ at a time.
This laneway bar has long marble bar, seating for 40, and a good part of the Grossi cellar stored behind glass like a votive offering to the god Bacchus. And even if you’re planning to be tucked up in bed by 10pm, the midnight spaghetti will play ball with your timetable. This is no booze-sopping gut-buster – it’s a dainty twirl of rigorously al dente spaghetti capturing a flavour burst of sugo, salty giant capers and sweet basil leaves.
Melbourne’s a town that does pasta either really well or terribly badly. Tipo 00 is a stand-out member of the first category and just as well for them. Pappardelle, thick ribbons boasting the suppleness of Nadia Comaneci and the right resistance to the teeth, is jumbled up with rabbit braised in white wine, with the toasty crunch of hazelnuts and green specks of marjoram. This is happiness in a bowl.
Come nightfall, the restaurant next door to the day trade does modern Italian bistro. It’s the service here that really takes the chill out of a Melbourne evening. We count five separate greetings in our short journey from door to table – it feels like we’ve just arrived at a friend’s place for dinner.
One of the best Italian restaurants in Melbourne has recently been reimagined into… one of the best Italian restaurants in Melbourne. Pasta Adagio (literally, slow pasta) was until recently known as Osteria La Passione, and it's still a simple place serving some of the most bang-on authentic Italian food you’re likely to find anywhere.
The name Pietro Barbagallo should be familiar to anyone who appreciates a Neapolitan-style pizza. His new venture, is a slightly more adult offering, taking the focus away from pizzas and putting forward some lesser-known traditional Sicilian plates. Mr Pietro’s charm comes from its quiet confidence and understated décor.
Here they're doing the kind of devotedly rustic, no-frills Italian food that you can feel doing you good, body and soul. Let’s call it Italian penicillin. Its strength is its simplicity. The brutishly ugly, utterly delicious cauliflower fritters are a nod and a wink that this is Rosa as she is known and loved. Just as good under the list on antipasti are the grilled chicken livers, interleaved with fat cubes of fried bread.
This quasi-secret laneway haunt boasts implicitly of Melbourne’s fabulousness. Con Christopoulos has plenty to do with Melbourne’s fabulousness. The City Wine Shop, European, Kirk’s Wine Bar, Neapoli, Siglo… the list goes on. From Gill’s looser European menu they’ve drilled down into the particular delights of regional Italy here.
Welcome to Bar Nonno: Northcote’s first biodynamic wine bar with a strong, traditional Italian focus and even stronger traditional Italian charm. The entrance feels like a retail shop until you get past the racks and hit the dining room filled with dark, deep reds and polished floorboards.
It’s all in the pacing. It’s the make or break factor of great dining, and it's something Rinaldo 'Ronnie' Di Stasio’s mainstay Italian has been nailing for 26 years. A three-course lunch can take four hours – maybe three, if you’re just here for a glass of Champagne and a plate of calamari. This is a restaurant that’s well and truly earned its reputation as one of Melbourne’s greats.
The grand old dame of Melbourne's restaurant scene offers comfort food at comfort prices (unless you're gluten intolerant, then you shall seek little comfort here). There's something special about sitting at a 70-year-old bench on a 70-year-old stool and looking at a 70-year-old menu while you shovel into a sliding colossus of lasagne ($16). We recommend it highly. A white shirt, not so much.
This schmick Italian ristorante is breathtakingly theatrical in a way that we’d forgotten was allowed – all floor-to-ceiling windows rippling down one side, chandeliers sprouting out of the domed ceiling, and an embarrassment of marble. It’s a more sophisticated scene, no question – the soundtrack is opera, waiters wear white linen jackets and there’s a whole mess of hairsprayed 'dos, and chinos dining on the lamplit terazza.
Along with some of the best and freshest gelati this city has ever seen, this house of iced treats also serves boards laden with Italian cheeses, a couple of hot dishes – whatever chef Alesandro Spicchia has cooked for staff lunch – and Melbourne’s first coffee blend fired in a wood-fuelled roaster.
It feels like this is the place that Lygon St, needed. It's inspired by Italy, the country who’s immigrants gave Melbourne hospitality its heart, but unlike the old-school Italian cafes that define this strip of Carlton, Heartattack looks forward to a bright future of casual eating and drinking, not back to a nostalgic past.
This lively Sicilian joint, where the music pumps and the snacks come out thick and fast, has fast become a Lygon Street favourite. You’ll want to book nice and early – there’s not a day Bar Idda isn’t packed. For a crash course on Sicilian food, turn your menu over – Bar Idda, along with sketching out a map of the region, have provided an illustrated timeline.
You know Guy Grossi’s joints. He’s got Italian fine diner Grossi Florentino – home of the $50 pasta entrée – and Cellar Bar downstairs, the old school trattoria where flirting knows no age limits. But you can forget about both of those when looking to Ombra, a salumi bar with polished concrete floors, and bareback tables designed for building makeshift meals of pickles and meats.
Eggplant melanzane? Foil butter sachets? Unapologetically old school with mod-Melbourne lines, Lupino is hammering out pan-Italian classics like they’re going out of style. It’s all polished concrete, terracotta tiles and holy hell - is that macramé? Sure is, and whilst the hard lines, echo factor, and city locale mean that by day it's all business, by night its a soft lit haven for casual rendezvous.
Just off Lygon Street, DOC is a pizza bar that means business. At the casual diner portion of Tony Nicolini's Italian empire (which also includes DOC Delicatessen and DOC Espresso), thin crispy bases make the perfect partner for the simple core Italian ingredients - buffalo mozzarella, fior di latte, and Italian smallgoods. Wash it down with a campari or Italian beer, and finish up with a dessert pizza.
Three decades in the business and Mario's is still going strong on Brunswick Street. Take the window seat and order a heaping bowl of spag bol or slick fettuccine pesto with some house wine for a classic Fitzroy experience. We love the service here, the black vest-clad waiters are old-school (the head waiter Massimo di Sora has been around since day one) and can often be seen chatting to regulars.
Finish off with a sweet treat
Nothing beats a scoop (or three) of ice cream or gelato for dessert, but not all frozen desserts are created equal. We've licked and scooped our way across the city in search of Melbourne's best cone artists.