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
Città sees Ronnie Di Stasio return to the neighbourhood where he pioneered Rosati in the heady days shortly before the fringe benefits tax and the stock market crash cruelled the excesses of the 1980s. The linguini Capri (ebulliently listed with “pawns, parsley, lemon and sunshine”) is enjoying poll position on Instagram, but capellini – angel hair by another name – with loads of garlic and briny-sweet chunks of crab meat in its white wine-driven sauce, is nipping at its heels.
Melbourne’s a town that does pasta either really well or terribly badly. Tipo 00 is definitely a stand-out member of the first category. The pappardelle, thick ribbons boasting 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. Carb-dodgers be damned.
Agostino is the final, crowning jewel in the Valmorbida family’s epic complex of Italian drinking and dining, which also includes the revived King & Godfree Deli and rooftop spritz bar Johnny’s Green Room. But where the other two are more casual affairs, this upscale wine bar is here to make an impression. Compact parcels of gnocchi roll around a sticky yet silky gorgonzola sauce, its gentle funk punctuated by flutters of bitter radicchio, while bitey maccheroni scoops up pillowy vodka sauce, tickled with chilli and topped with a dollop of soft ricotta that, with a swirl, turns the whole thing creamy.
Lello might be taking the pasta road less travelled but the church is much the same: excellent produce, intensive kitchen labour, and the added X-factor to put it in the pantheon of Melbourne’s noteworthy Italians. Apparently some people don’t like to know the exact contents of the vincigrassi, Lello’s signature dish. This lasagne from the Marche region bills the beef ragù, béchamel and parmesan on the menu but the unsung heroes are the veal sweetbreads and brains that add subtle richness to the slow-cooked beef shoulder. The pasta sheets are another thing: using a special, toasty wheat imported from Puglia, they add nuance and complexity to something far removed from the over-sauced Aussie-Italian versions of lasagne.
Since opening sometime back in the Qing dynasty in 2011, Pinotta has calmly plied its trade as the Platonic ideal of the neighbourhood haunt. The troika of good, unfussy Italian food, a punchy and intelligent wine list and service sprinkled with X-factor fairy dust works a convincing game, and the recent arrival of new head chef Cian Fenaughty has been a velvet revolution. A bird’s-nest tangle of squid ink tagliolini plays masterfully with the engulfing richness of sea urchin custard and a few sweet swatches of grilled onion all finished with the gritty, saline appeal of tobiko (flying fish roe).
Rosa Mitchell is like the godmother of Melbourne's Italian food lovers. She is an institution in her own right, and if you're missing Rosa's Kitchen you can still visit her canteen for an Italian spread. If you need a warm pasta hug, get the casarecci beef shin ragu or opt for the spaghetti di mare for a seafood pasta.
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 the perfect simplicity of the oil-based garlic and chilli Moreton Bay bug spaghettini commands a more than decade-long loyal following. This is Italian with sparkle, and everything they touch turns to gold.
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).
If you're at Trattoria Emilia for lunch or dinner, look no further than the ravioli di magro for a typical Modenese dish – fat yellow ricotta and spinach-stuffed orbs in a richer-than-Croesus butter sauce. Pasta as it should be – simple, unfussy, utterly satisfying. Chase it with something crisp, Italian and interesting, like a glass of the Umani Ronchi verdicchio.
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.