Few establishments in Melbourne are as iconic as King & Godfree. Since 1884 the heritage-listed building has sat steadfast in the heart of Carlton, on the corner of Lygon and Faraday streets. Namesakes George Godfree and Edwin King first opened it as a food store, and Carlo Valmorbida took over in 1955. Today, Carlo’s grandsons Luca Sbardella and Jamie Valmorbida continue the legacy.

After a three-year renovation driven by architects Herbert & Mason (Meatsmith), King & Godfree’s gleaming glass doors reopened at the end of last year, with a gourmet deli and grocer and a casual espresso bar joining gelateria Pidapipo on the ground floor, and Johnny’s Green Room opening on the roof. Combined they create a multistorey monument to Italian drinking and dining. Now, Agostino joins the troupe.

“It’s the last piece of the puzzle,” says general manager and culinary director Anthony Musarra (formerly Van Haandel Group, Estelle Group). “We hit the ground running; it was so busy and crazy with the deli and the roof. We wanted to bed those things down, then get this next piece open.”

Modelled on a classic Italian enoteca and named after the grocery store Carlo first opened on Swanston Street (Frank Agostino & Co) Agostino honours Carlo’s role in importing goods such as parmesan cheese, olive oil and Lavazza coffee to Melbourne, making him a true pioneer of the Italian food scene. It also pays homage to his northern-Italian roots.

Mussara designed the compact menu and oversees its execution by a team of chefs in a kitchen that provides for the entire building. It’ll always include some salumi (try the Wagyu bresaola with shaved artichoke, or the culatella, a punchy Italian ham served with thinly sliced salted persimmon), a handful of house-made pastas – spaghettini with crab and chilli, maccheroni (similar to large penne tubes) in a vodka-tomato sauce with whipped ricotta, gnocchi with gorgonzola and radicchio – and a few larger plates. Each dish arrives with one or two simple accompaniments. Nothing is overly embellished.

“This is about real Italian flavour, executed well,” Mussara says. “That’s the beauty of Italian food.”

Seafood makes repeat appearances: Moonlight Flat oysters, raw tuna crudo with capers and chilli, grilled octopus with spicy ‘nduja. A brodetto (seafood stew) is a vermouth-spiked broth packed with John Dory, mussels, clams and king prawns. Baccala mantecato, a classic Venetian dish of salt cod, is here served on two slabs of polenta and dusted with grated bottarga. It packs a powerful fishy punch.

“[The] salt cod’s been soaked for three or four days, simmered till tender, then [we] beat the hell out of it and slowly incorporate oil, a little bit of fresh garlic, salt and nothing else,” Mussara says. “It’s so straightforward and yet if it’s not done right, it’s not right.”

O’Connors grain-fed flank steak is simply salted, grilled, and served with sautéed cavalo nero, cime di rapa (rapini) and chicory with a cheek of lemon on the side.

Tarts and cakes are on display at the bar atop custom-made ceramics by local artist Shari Lowndes, or order nougat semifreddo, millefoglie (layers of puff pastry) with candied apple, or almond-milk pannacotta with rhubarb from the dessert menu.

Staff in custom-designed, head-to-toe white Japanese denim uniforms by Kloke flit back and forth with precision in the cosy space, which opens onto the bottle shop next door. Select a wine here and drink it in the dining room for $20 corkage, or explore the mix of new and old drops on the wine list, compiled by head sommelier James Tait (Lee Ho Fook, Tonka). The list spans natural and not-so-natural wines from Italy and Australia, with some of the harder-to-find and pricier wines sourced from the old bluestone cellar below the restaurant. It holds them in a temperature-controlled room alongside a 50-person private event space.

Among the 180-plus bottles on offer, back vintages of rare Piedmontese barolo and barbaresco can be enjoyed by the glass thanks to a Coravin (a mechanism that pours wine without removing the cork), so you can enjoy a glass without splurging on a whole bottle. At the other end of the scale, the 2016 Mac Forbes garganega – clean, with a mineral quality – on tap is $10 a glass, produced exclusively for Agostino.

Award-winning architect and interior designer Chris Connell (Bar Carolina, Dukes) is behind the sultry, stylish space. It’s a sunken dining room that feels almost subterranean. Neutral, earthy colours and textures are seen in olive leather banquettes, gunmetal-steel wine shelving and the occasional marble tabletop, or hint of an original bluestone wall.

Agostino
297 Lygon Street, Carlton
(03) 9347 1619

Hours:
Daily 12pm to 12am

agostinowine.com

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on May 14, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.