Ten hot Italians…

I LOVE Italian food. I love Italy itself too. You can’t go wrong with the home of pasta, parmesan cheese and gelato. Melbourne has a fabulous history of Italian residents and an abundance of Italian restaurants due to past waves of migration to Australia. In this blog I wanted to share my top 10 Italian dishes in Melbourne. So, in no particular order, here they are:

1. Eggplant parma at Neil Perry’s Rosetta. Gorgeous restaurant that makes you feel like a 50s movie star, with service and food to match. This eggplant parma is beautifully soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and topped with buffalo mozzarella and crispy basil leaves. Yum!

Rosetta's eggplant parma

Rosetta’s eggplant parma

2. Pizza at Oskar’s Pizza. This is my local pizza place and, conveniently, I happen to think that they do the best pizza in Melbourne. Big call, I know.

3. Mess Hall’s polenta chips. These are big fat wedges of crispy polenta, served hot and covered in cheese. So delicious!

4. Dolcetti’s dulce de leche cheesecake. Super creamy and just the right level of sweetness – these babies are a steal at under $4 too!

5. Gnocchi Napoli at Café Corretto on Lygon Street. I know it’s cheesy (both literally and figuratively), I know it’s a little tacky with the car suspended on the roof and the red plastic tablecloths, but I still love a big plate of old school gnocchi at this place. Student living for the win.

6. Rosetta’s zucchini, mint and pecorino risotto. I recently ate here, so my views may be slightly skewed, but this was definitely one of the best risottos I’ve ever had. Super creamy yet not gluggy, cheesy while still tasting fresh and summery. Big snaps also for the risotto at Mess Hall in the city and Sosta Cucina in North Melbourne.

Rosetta's zucchini risotto

Rosetta’s zucchini risotto

7. Cellar Bar’s Melanzane Alla Parmigiana, so many soft soft layers of eggplant with the sweetest tomato sauce ever. The service is kind of patchy, sometimes rude, but the eggplant is worth it.

8. Potato, cabbage, sage and tallegio pasta at Sosta Cucina. I don’t think it’s currently on the menu but it does appear quite frequently. It’s two types of carbs plus a very delicious kind of cheese, plus criminal levels of butter – need I say more?

9. The French custard tart at Brunetti. Amazing silky custard tart studded with big juicy sour cherries. Also can’t go past the Panzerotti (shortcrust patstry parcels, filled with vanilla pastry cream).

10. It sounds cute but my final favourite Italian dish is…my sister’s pan-finished roast pumpkin gnocchi with homemade Napoli sauce. It’s not readily available, but it is fabulous!

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Review: Rosa’s Kitchen

I am embarrassed to say that Tuesday night was my first visit to Rosa’s Kitchen, a gorgeous little Italian restaurant on Punch Lane in the city. For starters, it’s in a hard-to-find laneway location, which always appeals to Melbournians. There were eight or nine of us out for an impromptu dinner. When we arrived to a fairly full restaurant, staff quickly made room for us, dragging in chairs and setting extra places.

The menu is written up on blackboards around the room, which is big and bright and features a few kitsch Italian decorations without it feeling too daggy. The menu is small and authentic. Pastas dominate the selection, with items like pecorino and ricotta ravioli with a fresh tomato sugo, squid-ink spaghetti with calamari or giant meatballs served simply with tasty green beans. The whole feel is family friendly and foodie friendly. Pastas are made fresh daily, bread and green salads are complementary with the main meals and there’s a decent Italian-focused wine list with wines by the glass or bottle.

Rosa's interior

Rosa’s interior

I love Italian food, so Rosa’s started on a strong footing with me, but it did really deliver. The flavours were fresh and simple. Nothing was particularly fancy or ingenious, but everything tasted like it had been made with care. I don’t think there was anything left on anyone’s plates at the end of our dinner. It’s the perfect place for a relaxed mid-week meal.

Rosa’s Kitchen has been well reviewed in professional reviews and Rosa Mitchell is, apparently, something of a legend. Hence the embarrassment of never having heard of the place, let alone eaten there, until Tuesday. I was surprised, however, on reading up on Rosa’s Kitchen, about the number of negative customer reviews. There were many complaining about the rude staff, expensive prices and small size of meals. Normally I tend to respect Melbournian’s reviews and ratings and side with fellow bloggers, but I think, on this occasion, I have to go out on a limb and write some of them off as, well, bogans. It was the last comment, about meal sizes, that really led me to this conclusion. Because the meals at Rosa’s were in no way small. They were average if not generous portion sizes. There was also a comment about there being ‘no cream or anything’ with the desserts that sounded decidedly bogan to me. There’s nothing I hate more than a very average piece of mud cake or something like that dressed up with mountains of fake whipped cream, twizzly bits of fruit and sickly amounts of chocolate syrup. I’m not saying some desserts don’t need cream or ice-cream (I don’t even consider sticky date pudding unless it comes with ice-cream), but quality Italian style cakes do not need fussy plating to be delicious. The desserts at Rosa’s were very simply served, but they needed no accompaniment. I had a pear, pistachio and chocolate cake which was tasty and rich without being sickly. My partner had the lemon and mascarpone tart which was a standout – very tangy and yet the mascarpone ensured it was creamy almost to the point of fluffiness.

I also felt the prices were quite reasonable. We had mains with sides, dessert and three bottles of wine, which ended up being about $60 each. The staff were varied in their approach and I can see how a reviewer who got the wrong staff might think them rude. A few were chatty and warm, others did their job and nothing more. Having said that, a table was procured very quickly for us, meals were a little slow but came out in a co-ordinated fashion and when we asked for one of the broccoli side dishes to come without anchovies (for me, the veggie) this was not a problem.

Simple yet delicious chocolate pear and pistachio cake at Rosa's

Simple yet delicious chocolate pear and pistachio cake at Rosa’s

I left Rosa’s warm, full and smiling – a genuine Italian experience I’d go back for many times.

P.S. – I’m also excited to let you know that I own northmelbournelife.com, so you can now find my blog at this much simpler domain name. Yay!

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Beautiful ingredients

I think there is only one secret to delicious cooking. It’s not, as the French might have you believe, butter. It’s beautiful ingredients. That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of cooking shows and cookbooks are missing that important step in making a fantastic meal.

You do not need an ice-cream maker or a sous-vide water bath to create something spectacular. You need fresh, vibrant vegetables, decent olive oil and perhaps some quality cheese or protein. Don’t get me wrong, I love kitchen gadgets and I also love eating at fancy restaurants full of foam, gel and freeze-dried-who-knows-what. But it just occurred to me the other day how little attention we give to selecting and appreciating the basic ingredients.

So today is ‘ingredients appreciation day’ on my blog. Here’s a picture I took of rhubarb. Just rhubarb. Isn’t it beautiful? Those gorgeous pink stems on my bright green plastic chopping board. It’s sexy! It’s inspiring. (And no, I’m not high, just take a second and look…)

rhubarb pic

A place where you can really appreciate the beauty of ingredients is farmers markets. Regular readers will know that I LOVE markets. I’m also lucky enough to live fairly close to the Queen Victoria Markets. I adore going and looking at (and buying) the displays at markets. Everything is a little imperfect, plentiful and displayed in a happy-organic sort of way. You can pick things up, see them in natural light rather than under fluorescents and, of course, smell them! Markets also give you an appreciation of what’s in season. You know it’s mango season when they’re going for under $10 a box. You know mushrooms are at their best when the mushroom man has eleven types on display. And you know it’s summer when berries’ prices halve. I personally don’t haggle at food markets, but that is also a fun element to shopping at markets if you’re into that kind of thing.

At the Queen Vic markets, it is easy to get overwhelmed, since the markets themselves are huge and, especially on weekends, completely packed. You could spend ( and I have spent) a fair amount of time wading through cheap handbags and dodgy looking kids’ toys before you find the fresh produce and even then, quality varies between stalls. I’ve been hitting up the markets for fresh produce since 2007 and have spent way too many hours dawdling round the stalls, sniffing oranges and squeezing avocados. Below are a few of my recommendations for beautiful produce at the Queen Vic:

Curds and Whey
This is a great cheese and dairy shop in the deli section. I particularly like it for its extensive and well labelled range of vegetarian cheese, including an organic Italian parmesan. They also sell butter (salted or unsalted) from huge blocks on their counter, quark, yoghurt, vanilla beans, saffron and other little gourmet delights. Most importantly, they’re always happy to offer you a taste before you commit to that wedge of cheddar or block of gruyere.

The Queen Vic Deli
I love this place for one reason: hummus. Their homemade hummus is the best I’ve ever had. I think they mix in a fair bit of tahini, making it really creamy and yet still tangy and tasty. The selection of olives at this deli is also worth a stop, though I think some of the other offerings are a bit overpriced.

Garden Organics and VicMarket Organics
These are my two favourite fruit and veg stalls. Both stock almost entirely organic produce. They also indicate if the produce is locally grown, which is helpful if you’re considering food miles. The staff are friendly (if not a bit cool) and really care about their produce. Plus Garden Organics has precious tiny little perfect pink lady apples (when in season) which I’m kind of obsessed with…

Also worth a mention not so much for gorgeous ingredients but for great snacks and prepared food, are the Borek shop in the deli section (and their sister shop further down on Elizabeth Street which has THE BEST gozleme), the Traditional Pasta Shop for fresh pasta and really good bake at home garlic bread and market juice for yummy (but super sweet) smoothies and my favourite Evia brand of yoghurt.