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).
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.
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.
Pasta Adagio (literally, slow pasta) is a simple place serving some of the most bang-on authentic Italian food you’re likely to find anywhere. Chef and owner Carmine Costantini is the real deal; old fashioned cooking values given human form. And the man makes the best ragu in town – a silken mélange of beef, pork and veal in a shimmering tomato sugo, all wrapped around supple ribbons of egg-rich tagliatelle.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.