There are situations in life where only a bowl of carbs will do. There’s comfort in a plate of pasta that goes well beyond the slippery strands themselves. And so the dishes here aren’t strictly the city’s finest examples of pasta work. It’s a situational food, and you haven’t done Melbourne till you’ve sought succour at these institutions.
Melbourne's pasta masters
Ronnie Di Stasio’s bar adjunct to his legendary thirty-year-old restaurant is the best thing to happen to the south in years. Long and marble, and blaring Andrea Bocelli, it’s here we’ll happily come with a book for a single glass of something to knock our socks off and a simple bowl of spaghetti. They serve those strands so al dente they arch like angry cats, each stained red with tomato liquor, and buckshot with chilli and crisp specks of fatty-sweet cured pork jowl (guanciale).
This new little wine bar in Northcote is a peach – its greatest asset being that the family running it have no idea how good it is. In the courtyard you’ll find them cranking Dean Martin. At the bar, they’re serving biodynamic wines at stupidly good prices and presenting pasta as the Italian gods intended. Each day they pair up one shape – it may be bowties, papardelle or elbows – with the sauce it was custom designed for. On one visit, it’s spaghetti razzed up with the salt-acid simplicity of tomato, olives and anchovies. The next time, it’s gnocchi rolled in butter and sage.
There are times when ordering the pasta at a restaurant is as wasteful as summoning fish at a steakhouse. And then there’s Il Bacaro, where papardelle is cut into thick, slick, silky ribbons, and dressed in a dark and meaty lamb ragu, funked up with truffle paste and finished off with sharp shavings of Pecorino. This is Italian with sparkle, and everything they touch turns to gold.
Pietro Barbagallo’s gnocchi defies physics. His pillows are completely soft yet never pasty. They almost have the texture of firm ricotta and barely last the distance from plate to face before completely disintegrating on impact. He used to serve the little islands floating in an ocean of gorgonzola, but nowadays they come in his acid-bright sugo.
To eat a massive slab of lasagne at Pellegrini’s is to ingest a piece of Melbourne’s food history. It’s an unapologetic wedge of cheesy meat and pasta that given the opportunity will meander slug-like right off your plate. This was one of the first cafés to ever serve espresso drinks outside of continental Europe, and if your family hails from Melbourne, chances are you owe your life to your ancestors getting frisky over some carbs – exotic aphrodisiac of the ’50s.
Rosa Mitchell is the five-foot-nothing Sicilian chef whose no-fuss frittatas and pastas made everyone in Melbourne wish she was their mum back when she was at Journal Canteen. Now she’s chalking up the specials on a board in a tiny trattoria near Chinatown. Specials change daily, but some things remain the same – Lambrusco in your glass, produce from Mitchell’s Yandoit garden and little belly button shaped orecchiette bumped up with cauliflower, currants and toasted pine nuts.
Stonemill wears the wardrobe of 2014 – bare bricks and bulbs, and Rihanna rocking the speakers – but your hosts are a pair of silver-haired gents in flour-flecked pinnies who still kiss the ladies, backslap the men who’ve bagged them, and serve their gnocchi in a frypan. Get that gnocchi if it’s on – one of said hosts ambles to the window to start lightly rolling and cutting the dough into big fluffy pillows, which are tossed with the most walloping, chunky pork ragu Lygon Street has going and plonked down, in pan, still bubbling. Buon appetito.
It’s not about the pasta itself at Tiamo – we sometimes spend as much time shovelling dried Parmesan onto the stuff as eating it – it’s about what’s surrounding it: worn stools, faded tiles beneath feet and baskets of thick spongy bread swiped with too much butter. The Italian crew spend as much time serving as fraternising and the wine is ‘red’ and comes in a tumbler. It’s here we’ll come for post-cheap-movie-night at Cinema Nova for a bucket of fettuccini capturing chilli, parsley and fishy nuggets of pan-fried barramundi nuggets in a well-oiled web.
It takes a lot of table wiping to wear white patches through brown Laminex, but that’s the kind of action the tables at the Italian Waiter’s Club have seen in their decades of faithful service. Here, the Parmesan is dried, the chilli is flaked and your entrée might be a half avocado with vinaigrette. Coming here for a mountain of penne with chunky cut capsicum and salami, folded in a simple sugo is quite possibly the best way to get the measure of your date. Our cup runneth over with nostalgia and table wine.