At Rao’s in New York tables aren’t reserved – they're assigned. To dine at the East Harlem restaurant you need to know someone, or know someone that knows someone. So if you want to try their famous meatballs, you better have good connections.
Alternatively you can stop in at Sig. Enzo in Brunswick, where the secret of Rao’s meatballs has made it to Melbourne with a local twist, says Sig. Enzo co-owner Vince Mazzone. The recipe has been passed down through Mazzone's family, whose relation married a member of the Rao family.
Here, the meatballs – which unlike the New York version do not include veal – are made by Vince or his daughter, Bella, who helps run the business. The sauce takes five hours to make, and you’ll often find either father or daughter hand-rolling the pork and beef mixture for service.
Sig. Enzo isn’t as exclusive as Rao’s, and a lot less old fashioned. It’s all about casual eating, Italian wine and aperitivi. No table assignations – simply walk in and grab a spot at the bar or settle into a leather-upholstered booth.
As well as meatballs, there are cured meats, crostini and two types of arancini (ragu or mushroom). Larger plates include a couple of spaghetti dishes, pizzas, plus a risotto special. Sundays are all about grazing and for $20 you can get a wine, beer or spritz, while snacking on the food set out for all to share.
The drinks list features a range of Italian aperitivi and digestivi, as well as four versions of Negroni, and four different spritzes. The wine list is small, all-Italian and spans most regions of the country. Tap beer comes from WA’s Gage Roads, complemented by a couple of bottles and cans.
The booths and bar are made from recycled wood, with original French Jieldé lights lining one wall. Another wall is covered in sheets of old local newspaper. Vintage Bang & Olufsen speakers from the ’60s play classic jazz records. There’s an effortless cool here and the father-daughter duo say they basically created the place they want to drink.
Vince got his start in hospitality importing Italian wine before opening Carlton’s Tre Bicchieri in 2004. He’s had other cafes, all since sold, including Espresso Alley in Northcote. He says when he started out “people weren’t even buying prosecco”, and Aperol generally suffered a similar fate. “I couldn’t sell an Aperol to save my life,” he laughs. Not a problem – naturally – now.
1D Michael Street, Brunswick
(03) 9388 8718
Wed to Fri 4pm–11pm
Sat & Sun 1pm–11pm
Menu items may have changed since publication.