2020 wasn’t easy on anyone – and Italian-born chef Andrea Vignali is no exception. But when the international visa-holder was stood down from his job at Melbourne institution Grossi Florentino during the first lockdown, he launched pasta-delivery service Al Dente. And as far as silver linings go, this one was spangled. Melburnians fell hard for Vignali’s cacio e pepe tortellini, potato gnocchi and portobello mushroom ragu – all prepared from his small apartment kitchen.
As the city tentatively reopened after the initial lockdown, Vignali returned to the Grossi kitchen and was forced to shut down his successful side hustle. But it wasn’t long before Al Dente relaunched in the throes of the second lockdown. And its success was cemented when Vignali and business partner – and housemate – Davide Bonadiman opened an enoteca (something like “wine bar” in Italian) on Nicholson Street in Carlton, earlier this year.
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It’s a visa-holder – and lockdown – success story
When Vignali was first stood down from his sous-chef role at Grossi, he discovered that, along with so many others, he was ineligible for government welfare payments due to his status as an international visa-holder. So, he launched this pasta-delivery service to help stay afloat financially. And the fresh-faced chef quickly gained a following for his lockdown comfort food. In his first week, he did around $400 worth of orders. That figure leapt to $10,000 by week four. Now, Vignali and Bonadiman have left the solitude of their apartment kitchen and returned to the work they love – serving dine-in customers. “It’s an amazing emotion,” Vignali says. “That’s what we do – what we’ve always [done]. Me and Davide, we’ve always [worked] in fine-dining restaurants – high level – and the food we do is plated up.” And they’re committed to supporting other workers in similar situations, recently hiring two staff on student visas. “We like to support them because we see ourselves in them,” Vignali says. “That’s how Al Dente started during lockdown because these people didn’t have a job.”
Former Grossi chefs helm the kitchen – and their menu changes weekly
Vignali and Bonadiman met around five and a half years ago when Vignali moved to Melbourne. They’ve since worked in several different kitchens together, most recently – and notably – at Grossi Florentino, where Vignali was a sous chef and Bonadiman worked as a chef in the larder section. Elements of fine dining appear at the Nicholson Street restaurant – from the crisp white tablecloths, to the top-level service and five- or eight-course degustations (which lend themselves to lingering).
The menu changes weekly but the crab ravioli – a lockdown favourite – remains a mainstay. Al Dente’s egg-yolk-based pasta is filled with Fraser Isle spanner crab, mixed with a light mirepoix (of potatoes and green apples) and topped with a buttery chilli sauce. Duck-and-Jerusalem-artichoke tortellini use all parts of the animal; roast duck and artichokes make up the filling, then cubes of artichoke are pan-fried in duck fat, and a rich duck jus (made from duck bones) is poured over the top when it hits your table.
The stainless-steel bench Vignali used to pump out some 50 to 60 kilograms of pasta per week last year has made its way from his share-house kitchen to the new diner. “It was the first thing we bought,” Vignali says. “We used to use it in my house … it was just me, [Bonadiman] and six fridges.” Aside from pasta, you might find a marbled Wagyu flank with charred friggitelli (sweet Italian chilli peppers) and fermented black garlic; hapuka fillet with smoked potato cream and cime di rapa; and a fine-dining take on the polarising pub classic surf’n’turf: grilled scallops topped with burnt onion and crisp pancetta.
Sgroppino – a traditional Italian dessert-cocktail hybrid consisting of whisked lemon sorbet and prosecco – is served in a small palm-sized dish and acts as a palate cleanser before dessert. If you’re lucky, Vignali will have his popular torta sabbiosa (“sandy” in Italian) on the menu. The soft sponge-like cake originates from Lodi in northern Italy, where Vignali was born. It’s buttery but light with elements of zest and cream. The delicate cake is served with a mascarpone custard made with a splash of brandy.
Finally, there’s booze on the menu
Liquor-licensing delays took a toll on Al Dente, but boozy times are ahead; the team secured its licence just before Melbourne entered lockdown 4.0. Operations manager Michelle Badek says the wine list is still a work in progress – currently it features a mix of Italian and Australian wines, including drops from Petronio Wines and Project 49 – but the team hopes to have a comprehensive list of 70 to 100 bottles (around 60 to 70 per cent local) when complete. Cocktails include a riff on the classic Negroni, made with prosecco; a Limoncello Drop with lavender meringue; and a yuzu-flavoured Highball.
You can get house-made pasta (and sauces) to-go
Given the nature of Al Dente’s conception, the team knows how important it is to be adaptable. The enoteca’s adjoining shop, called the sapori (“flavours” in Italian) aims to bring comfort cooking to your place. And the team has come to rely on the shop to stay afloat during lockdown periods. Freezers are packed with crab ravioli; casoncelli alla Bergamasca (pasta traditionally filled with sausage, mortadella, egg and butter); semolina pappardelle and tagliatelle; and Al Dente’s famed cacio e pepe tortellini. House-made sauces might include Sicilian pesto, truffle butter, lemon curd, and slow-cooked lamb ragu and bolognaise. Mount Zero olive oil, St Ali coffee, and San Pellegrino sparkling drinks are also available.
Al Dente Enoteca and Sapori
161–163 Nicholson Street, Carlton
Mon & Tue closed
Wed & Thu 6pm–10pm
Fri 12pm–3pm, 6pm–10pm