Anyone of the opinion that Italian food isn’t vegetarian friendly hasn’t had a decent eggplant parmigiana. And they definitely haven’t been to Bio by DOC.

Unlike the pizza-centric restaurants that came before it, the latest addition to the DOC Group’s stable of venues is completely vegetarian and gluten-free – with a strong vegan focus. And you’ll find it just a few doors down from DOC’s Carlton pizzeria in the space formerly occupied by The Town Mouse.

“When I was first asked to work on this, I said ‘No way’,” says longstanding DOC chef Tomaso Bartoli, who heads up the kitchen at Bio. But eventually, with the encouragement of co-founder Michael Costanzo, he changed his tune.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Costanzo, who was raised on simple Italian dishes made with homegrown produce. “A lot of people say you can’t do Italian vegetarian. Yes, you can, and you can do it very well. It’s about bringing back those simple dishes that mum and nonna used to make.”

Dietaries aside, the dishes here don’t stray too far from tradition. Some are inherently vegan (grilled vegetable tartare with capers, mustard and truffle paste; charcoal spaghetti with Roma tomatoes) or vegetarian (eggplant parmigiana with black-cabbage pesto and burrata; buffalo ricotta and spinach gnudi with burnt butter and crisp sage).

But a few have been entirely veganised: the saffron arancini is filled with vegan brie, the lasagne has dairy-free bechamel, and the tiramisu swaps mascarpone for cashew cream.

Going gluten-free was a bit more challenging, but Costanzo reckons it was worth it. “A lot of people in the last year have been asking for gluten-free products,” he says. The coeliac-friendly fettucine, spinach lasagne sheets and even savoiardi biscuits (for the tiramisu) are made in-house, while the beetroot casarecce and hemp gnocchi come from local suppliers.

The only gluten here is in the tight selection of Aussie and Italian beers. And, with the exception of honey in one of the cocktails, they’re all vegan – as are the wines. “The wine list is a bit better than [at] all our other places,” says Costanzo, who chose to focus on natural Italian drops, including a pét-nat from Tuscany and a skin-contact trebbiano from Umbria.

After taking over the space, Costanzo recruited Studio Ström to brighten it up. “The only thing I left is the original floor, which I love,” he says. That meant painting the walls white, installing subtle neon lighting and commissioning custom furniture. There’s also on-street al fresco dining, a leafy courtyard and a private dining room upstairs.

Overall, Costanzo says, “It’s all about trying to create something for people that they’re not scared of trying. I’m happy for people to just come sit at the bar with a few entrees.”

Bio by DOC
312 Drummond Street, Carlton
(03) 9349 1386

Tue to Thu 5pm–12am
Fri & Sat 12pm–3pm, 5pm–12am
Sun closed

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on December 8, 2020. Menu items may have changed since publication.