It’s a Friday lunch, often one of the busiest services in a restaurant’s working week, but for Chris Lucas it seems every day is this hectic. We’re at Baby, Lucas’s smart, sexy, new Italian restaurant in Richmond, which has seen the restaurateur find a gap in the market just as he did with the CBD Thai eating house Chin Chin, which is still blisteringly busy.
Earlier this year, Brett Graham and Rob Lowther (of The Bottle of Milk and Pizza Pizza in Lorne) and chef Daniel Spizzica opened Rita's on the Abbotsford end of Johnston Street, serving pizza and pasta. Neil Perry, one of the country’s most highly regarded chefs, has recently opened Italian restaurant Rosetta in Crown Casino. Sense a pattern?
Italian food is not a trend in any sense of the word. In Melbourne, it has been an innate part of our collective lives since the first wave of Italian immigration in the 1950s. So why are these operators, who aren’t Italian, embracing Italian food? And why now?
Emotion plays a large part in cooking good food – Italian food in particular. Spend time with an Italian family and you will find that each day is built around a good meal, usually at lunch, which will consist of pasta or rice, followed by a meat (perhaps polpette, cottolette or a braised dish), finished with a simple, seasonal salad, often picked from their own garden. It’s a way of bringing people together and doing so with simplicity and humility. Melbourne’s new wave of Italian restaurants are embracing this ethos, serving dishes based in tradition and authenticity, founded on simplicity and quality product, and brimming with care and emotion. This is one of the reasons why Lucas, for example, has gone Italian. Despite not being Italian himself, he feels a connection to the culture.
A Greek Australian, Lucas’s mother lived with Italians when she first moved to Australia. “She could speak Italian and would cook great Italian and Greek food,” he says.
But it was a year spent in Italy in 1984 that really resonated with Lucas. “I was working at a fruit and veg market in Rome,” he recalls. “I was a young backpacker and what they didn’t sell, I’d run it down to trattorias around the market. They were workers’ restaurants and they’d cook chicken with garlic, olive oil, herbs. I fell in love with the smells and the food.”
When Lucas was looking for a new business to sink his teeth into after opening Chin Chin, the natural course would have been to open a Greek restaurant, but his connection to Italian cuisine continued to resonate. “I thought, Italian food is more varied and to be honest, it was easier to find people who could cook Italian food,” he says. “And…who doesn’t love pizza?”
Daniel Spizzica from Rita's also stands by the universal love of Italian food, "I think people will and always do come back to trusty, staple cuisines like Greek, French and, of course, Italian food… It's a comfort food that people have loved for many years, and who doesn't love pizza and pasta? It's the best food in the world and will outlast any phase."
In some ways, Italian food has transcended its own cultural context. Indeed, there are many Italian restaurants in Melbourne that owned and operated by non-Italians. One that has always been determined to do things its own way is Cicciolina in St Kilda, which was opened way back in 1993 by the same team who went on to open Ilona Staller in Balaclava in late 2010.
Back in the early 90s, chef Virginia Redmond, Barbara Dight and Lisa Carrodus detected a need for a good, local, Italian eatery in St Kilda. “We lived and worked in St Kilda and Italian food sort of ticked all the boxes,” says Dight. “Our background was working in Italian-influenced places, which was very big in the late 80s, early 90s. Cafe e Cucina was probably our model, but in a more no nonsense, local approach.”
Cicciolina’s menu was and still is produce-driven, a cornerstone of good Mediterranean food. Redmond and her head chef Michelle Elia believe “that a main dish should have all the 'sides' on the plate already, at no extra cost, as they have already predetermined the 'marriage' of the dish,” according to Dight. “Same with the pasta – it's a skill of the chef to combine all the ingredients. Italian cuisine lends itself to that.”
Perhaps this is one of the building blocks behind Italian food that is making it popular again – the cuisine’s marriage of flavours and its central foundation built on seasonal ingredients. Neil Perry thinks so. "Italian food is so accessible and I think people are really enjoying the quality ingredients and simplicity of Italian cooking."
Great quality mozzarella, either imported from Italy or made locally, is one such ingredient finding its way onto many menus, either on platters, in salads or cooked into pizzas.
Kirsty Laird, co-owner of mozzarella shop La Latteria in Carlton has seen a surge in demand for their mozzarella over the last year. "The demand for our mozzarella has definitely increased over the past 12 months, both cow and buffalo," she says. Laird believes her customers are "more aware of carbon miles, transporting of ingredients and animal welfare," which is seeing a shift towards buying good quality local product over imported products. "We are able to tell customers exactly when the product was made and from where the milk is sourced."
But Perry’s other suggestion – that Italian is endlessly accessibility – is also key. Italian food is approachable from several angles and can suit various lifestyles and moods. Lucas detects “a real movement back towards food that we grew up with”.
“Our lifestyles are suiting this way of eating,” he says. “We don’t want to be stressed when we go out for dinner and the majority of people want to get back to nature."
Freedom from regional tradition plays another role in our current love affair with Italian food. Lucas, Perry, two of the three owners of Rita’s and the team at Cicciolina aren’t Italian, thus their heritage is not entwined in staying true to a region of birth. Rather, they can present and play with flavours, textures and ingredients that hold true to varying parts of the country at any one time.
“I think it’s a good thing,” says Lucas. “We’ve got that debate in the kitchen at Baby at the moment, because we have northern and southern Italians cooking in there, so it’s now not just about the style of the food but its quality.”
Daniel Spizzica, the Italian third of Rita’s, doesn’t see heritage limiting his business partners. “I don't believe that because the boys are ‘non-Italians’ they don't bring any less to the table when it comes to ideas for the restaurant menu. They both have a great love of food! They are both very hospitality and food-driven, so they are both great to bounce ideas off and work with on the menu, along with the other chefs at Rita's too.”
Neil Perry agrees. “I think it helps not being Italian and devoted to a specific region,” he says. “Not being bound by regional traditions, it allows me to appreciate all of Italy and give customers a taste of many authentic Italian flavours.”
Italian food is a deliciously and, at times, deceptively simple cuisine. Olive oil and sea salt, basil and tomatoes, garlic, balsamic vinegar, osso bucco and lasagne are all part of our daily conversation and, more often than not, our pantries.
As Lucas says, “What draws me to Italian food is the depth and breadth of the raw quality produce – the cheeses, the oils – beautiful ingredients that speak for themselves.”
Perhaps Italian food has merely just shifted with our growing awareness of provenance of ingredients? The new wave of Italian eateries don't so much represent a movement, but rather, an articulation of the evolution in consumer education and accessibility to good ingredients. Put simply, it’s a natural progression.
“Definitely, our love of Italian food is evolving,” says Perry, “and people are rediscovering how good it can be.”
Then, of course, there is the romance – the sensual shift we feel when we smell a fresh basil leaf or bite a warm, sun-ripened tomato. It’s fundamentally Italian and, perhaps now, just a little bit Melbourne.
“With access to some amazing produce, including dry stores and preserved goods, married with fresh Australian ingredients, it's the best it has been.”