Walking down Hardware Lane means running the gauntlet of cheek-by-jowl waiters trying to entice potential diners into their venues with proffered 15-page illustrated menus. But not all venues rely on their front-of-house to charm the masses on the hoof, and restaurants like the Hardware Club prove this with one-page menus full of straight-up hits.
Co-owner and chef Nicola Dusi (former chef at Chris Lucas's restaurant Baby Pizza) hails from fair Verona in Italy and serves up respectful riffs on traditional Italian dishes. The upstairs trattoria is lined with wooden veneers and colourful pops of artwork by Matt Tambellini from More Studio. Our table adjoins a cabinet stocked with Dusi’s own chilli concoctions, inspired by his time at Lucas's pan-Asian diner Chin Chin. At the other end of the venue is a high shelf of Dusi’s own liqueurs, including a limoncello that's not yet for sale, and behind it, a grandiose pizza oven waiting to be fired up.
The fried octopus ‘pizzaiolo’ is more deconstructed dough-free pizza than salad, with the deep-fried octopus tentacles taking up the crisp element of the dough. It’s a patriotic statement – a tricolour green-red-and-white ensemble of crisp fried octopus tentacles, milky buffalo mozzarella, torn basil leaves, crisped-up capers and juicy chunks of tomatoes.
The wine list is an Italian and Australian affair, and the Italian reds outweigh the others, but there’s a separate section of on-skin orange wine to subdue new-age natty wine kids. The 2019 Marcobarba Barbabianca is a Garganega wine from Veneto and it’s a standout, even for some old-world purists, with its tangerine acidity and lean, dry style that complements the richer dishes.
An entrée of roasted bone marrow shows that osso bucco isn’t the only way to ingest the tissue. The bone is sliced horizontally and roasted before being dished up with a simple dressing of salsa verde primed with citrus, those fried capers and thin rings of shallot. A spoon is ready at the bay to scoop and slide the jellied marrow onto accompanying toast. The salsa verde's acidity cuts through the buttery marrow beautifully.
Dusi has set out to create the spiciest pasta dish in Melbourne with his pasta all'assassina (a dish originating in Puglia, where pasta is cooked in a pan, like risotto, rather than being boiled). To make it, Dusi draws upon his experience at Chin Chin and fries up yesterday’s spaghetti strands as if they were Hokkien noodles, serving them lightly charred, swaddled in a chilli sauce and topped with a hearty orb of mozzarella to douse the fire beneath. Want more heat? Ask for the big guns – Dusi's very own fermented Carolina Reaper hot sauce or a Scotch bonnet chilli oil. Approach with caution. Trust us on that one.
A visit from the liquor cart comes to the rescue, offering sweet, soothing liqueurs to ease the burn. Dusi’s creativity shines through with his ferments, and his smooth limoncello is a cloudy beam of sunshine thanks to the emulsified sugars and extracted lemon oil. To cap things off, a shot of Nonino’s herbaceous Amaro sends us on our way. With Italian cooking this good, a one-page menu is plenty.