The Italian Riviera, a crescent-shaped strip of coast that stretches from the French to Tuscan borders in north-western Italy, is famous for its glittering waters and picturesque seaside towns.

It’s in Liguria, a region famous for its produce – olives, honey and seafood – and dishes such as pesto, focaccia and pansotti (a type of ravioli stuffed with cheese, nutmeg and wild herbs). It’s also the setting for the new Disney Pixar film Luca, the coming-of-age tale of one young boy’s unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides.

On the other side of the world, in Melbourne, Julia Busuttil Nishimura grew up hearing tales of her mother’s glamorous trips to Italy when she worked for an airline in the ’70s. “She used to jump in the cockpit when there was a spare seat and travel to Rome to buy leather gloves … It was very romanticised in my eyes – the dolce vita lifestyle of long lunches and siestas and aperitivo before dinner,” she says. “When I finally got to Italy when I was 18, I saw it with my own eyes and fell in love with it as well.”

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Italian cuisine, she discovered, is reminiscent of the food Busuttil Nishimura grew up with in a Maltese family: “Simple, seasonal and family-centred”. In Italy, she says, food is “always about sharing a meal with someone and meeting friends out for aperitivo.” It’s a food culture that’s lively and generous, she says. “That’s why I love it so much.”

To mark the release of Luca, streaming now on Disney+, Busuttil Nishimura embarked on an Italian food crawl through Melbourne with her friend, chef Dom Wilton. Melbourne’s a city with close links to Italy thanks to the tens of thousands of Italian immigrants who arrived in Victoria after World War II. These waves of arrivals helped shape the city, an influence still apparent today in the city’s famous cafe culture and many Italian-inspired eateries.

Wilton, like Busuttil Nishimura, also loves all things Italian. “When I travelled to Italy in 2018, he
gave me heaps of tips for Rome,” she says, also mentioning that she couldn’t think of a better partner to accompany her on a day of Italian feasting. “He’s fun and funny, he loves to eat, and he’s such a proud Melburnian.”

Grossi Florentino Cellar Bar: bombolone and coffee

The tour begins at Grossi Florentino, a Melbourne institution that first opened in 1928. In 1999, the Grossi family took over the venue, cementing its place as a favourite in the city’s dining scene.

“A classic way to start your day in Italy is standing at the bar with a cappuccino or an espresso and a cornetto or bomboloni,” says Busuttil Nishimura. At Grossi Florentino, “They do the old-world Italian feeling so well. It feels like you’re near a train station in Rome.”

A cornetto is an Italian version of a croissant, and a bomboloni is a doughnut often filled with creme patisserie. “They’re a classic Italian sweet, and they go so well with bitter coffee,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “It’s a super decadent and delicious breakfast.”

Pellegrini’s: watermelon granita

The next stop is Pellegrini’s, conveniently located a minute’s stroll from Grossi Florentino. Another Melbourne institution, Pellegrini’s was established in 1954 by two brothers who emigrated from Italy. Legend has it the cafe housed Melbourne’s first espresso machine, and it soon became the epicentre of both the city’s Italian community and its burgeoning cafe scene. In 1974, Pellegrini’s was taken over by Nino Pangrazio and Sisto Malaspina (tragically Malaspina, a much-loved Melburnian, was killed in the Bourke Street attack in 2018).

Its heritage-listed sign, chequerboard floor and white-shirted waiters give Pellegrini’s a timeless air in a city that’s in a constant state of renewal. “It’s unchanged; that’s the appeal. You feel like it’s from another time,” says Busuttil Nishimura, whose pick of the menu is the watermelon granita. “It’s an iconic dish at Pellegrini’s – you can’t get it anywhere else in Melbourne.” There’s nothing quite like sitting at the bar at Pellegrini’s after seeing a show and sipping a granita, she says. “It’s such a good people-watching spot.”

Pidapipo: blood orange gelato

Pidapipo, a Degraves Street gelateria with pink terrazzo flooring and a 1920s Italian fit-out, makes “the best gelato in Melbourne,” says Busuttil Nishimura, who has been a customer since Pidapipo’s owner, Lisa Valmorbida, first opened a pop-up known as the Test Lab in 2013. At Pidapipo, the gelati is made from scratch each day. “They use seasonal produce, and it always tastes true to the ingredients – it’s not too sweet,” says Busuttil Nishimura.

The menu, which changes with the seasons, might include classics like chocolate, bacio or salted caramel as well as dairy-free sorbetto such as blood orange, passionfruit or kiwi. “They always have fun ones, but I always get fior di latte,” says Busuttil Nishimura.

The Hardware Club: cacio e pepe toastie and pappardelle al limone

The Hardware Club is a new-wave Italian eatery on the first floor of the heritage-listed Hardware House. It’s popular for its playful and innovative snacks, such as its cacio e pepe toastie. Busuttil Nishimura also loves the pappardelle al limone, a pasta dish made with caramelised lemon and tonnes of pecorino romano. “I’m a big fan of sunshine-y bright lemon pasta, and they do an amazing spaghetti which is really lemony,” she says.

The Hardware Club is “young and fresh and shows a different side of Italian cooking – a younger generation who are experimenting with things and being a bit more creative,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “It’s an exciting place that deserves a look in.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Disney. Disney and Pixar’s Luca is now streaming on Disney+. A subscription is required.