“Danger and fear produces quality,” declares Rinaldo Di Stasio at his new CBD restaurant Di Stasio Città. “My motivation is fear, [but] not of others or what they’re doing. I’m worried about what I’m doing – [there’s] contradiction, guilt, fear, frustration. Detail is hard work. If it’s frustrating you, good – it’s working.”

Di Stasio is back in the city again after 30 years. In 1985 he opened his first restaurant, Rosati, in Flinders Lane.

At the original, three-decades-old Cafe Di Stasio in St Kilda, the Merenda or After School Sandwich has been a staple for years. It’s a small, crusts-off, white-bread veal schnitzel sandwich that’s wrapped in foil and tastes as good as it sounds. And it’s made the journey to Cafe Di Stasio’s Spring Street sibling.

The simplicity of the sandwich is as emblematic of the new restaurant as it is contradictory. On the one hand, this homey snack has no business being here among fine art and fine-diner dishes. On the other, it’s just like some of the elements that make up Di Stasio Città, such as the mesmerising video works projected onto the raw concrete walls, and the integrity of plates such as roast duck served in two pieces alongside nothing more than a very intense duck sauce. Like them, the sandwich simply belongs here. It’s about their spirit – individually and in unison. It’s about a few simple but mastered elements, which is a Di Stasio creed. Città is the perfect example of something being more than the sum of its parts.

For Di Stasio, it’s a never-finished project of constantly evolving ideas that – together with his self-coined “Italianality” – forms the restaurant’s underlying ethos. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d read about in an art gallery, which is fitting.

Città itself is brutalist and strong, like entering a Milanese entryway. Melbourne architecture studio Hassell is behind the design, and it’s flat-out beautiful – a work of art in its own right. Di Stasio loves hearing that, but he also just wants diners to sit and relax – to tell stories, to drink wine, and breathe it all in. Because you don’t visit Italy: you live it.

There are video installations that feel like modern frescos in a Blade Runner world. They’re jazzy and significant (by acclaimed Australian artists including Shaun Gladwell and Reko Rennie) and become part of the atmosphere as you settle in.

The nature of a place like this is the headiness of it – the frivolity. You meet friends, they join you, they move on, and then you bump into someone else. You share another bottle. You stay a few more hours. The monolithic walls are too new to hold any secrets just yet (and the great restaurant walls never spill the beans) but you can guarantee they will see things.

“There’s as much responsibility on the diner as the restaurateur,” Di Stasio says. It’s a typical Di Stasio-ism. “There’s got to be some courting.”

The menu resembles the St Kilda restaurant’s in many ways, heavy with handmade pasta. Thin strands of capellini pasta with briny hunks of crab, and veal saltimbocca with semolina gnocchi, are reminiscent of dishes you’d find at the Cafe. Radicchio arrives grilled, fanned out on the plate, dressed simply with lemon and oil, or there’s paccheri (large, tubular pasta) with bolognaise. Parmesan hits the table alongside your pasta, but is rarely required. Salt plays a spirited role here.

You’ll probably ask for the bill later than you imagined – time is easily whiled away here. But it’s worth it. You’re borrowing a very special part of the city for a few hours. “A little bit of suspended animation,” as Di Stasio puts it. “You’re being looked after.”

This will be fun.

Di Stasio Città
45 Spring Street, East Melbourne
(03) 9070 1177

Hours:
Mon to Fri 11.30am–late
Sat & Sun 11.30am–late

distasio.com.au

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on February 19, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.