Friday, 23 January 2009

No Ink'ling - Piccolo Mondo

The stretch along Lygon Street that is Melbourne's Little Italy has always posed a bit of a conundrum for me. Just about every City guide book will list the street as a not to be missed destination for a sampling of the 'Restaurant City' that is Melbourne. And yet this busy and highly competitive length of packed eateries jostling for customers' attention each evening appears to be largely denigrated and dismissed by local foodies. Why is this? The area is certainly lively enough to spend an evening out in, and there are no lack of choices supposedly specialising in various regional Italian cuisine. Surely not every single one of them is simply after the naive tourist dollar. It's not that Italian food is currently out of vogue either, with endless accounts and reviews of contemporary meals enjoyed at fashionable back-to-basics pizzerias and inventive risotto joints right around Melbourne and its many suburbs. But rarely on Lygon Street.

Dishes served with little imagination, and if you finished that bowl of pasta nero you'll be pooing black for a week!

Our most recent venture to the area led to Piccolo Mondo, just one of the dozens of Italian restaurants lining the virtual epicentre of Lygon Street. We'd already dismissed the attention of many of the restaurant touters one encounters when walking down that street, but somehow paused to listen to what this one had to offer. Perhaps it was the pretty whitewashed Victorian terrace with cosy dining courtyard that was the venue. Perhaps it was the Italian caricature that was spouting the benefits of the experience, built like a tank with broad square-jacketed shoulders, no neck, threateningly bald, heavy baritone accent, hand like a nugget of lead resting on my shoulders. He could take out my kneecaps. Actually, we don't mind the touts in the least; it's all part of the game, a bit of fun, never threatening and the area will be infinitely less colourful if they were indeed banned like some would have it.

In the end though, the meal didn't really live up to what was promised. A heavily dressed bocconcini and tomato salad ($5) was something one could easily toss together at home, only with a more refined hand. A blackboard special of Linguine al Nero di Seppia ($24.90), what I'd anticipated as squid ink pasta, was in fact just regular linguine tossed with pieces of squid and a heavy squid ink sauce. Though it tasted quite okay at first, the thick iodine-heavy inkiness simply became too much especially with the overly huge serving. It's a rare complain when it's about a serve being too generous but seriously, that pasta bowl would not be out of place sitting atop a vanity as a bathroom basin. Our other dish of seared veal served with sauteed prawns and mushrooms, Scallopine Bosco ($34.50) was similarly overly portioned on a satellite dish of a plate. Quite palatable but again no subtlety, a heavy hand with the marsala.

So then, what is it about Lygon Street? At the risk of painting the lot with one broad brush, perhaps it has become not so much a true cultural enclave but a cartoon interpretation of a Little Italy. On reflection I have so far never been blown away by any of the continental restaurants I've tried there. Like Piccolo Mondo these appeared to be trapped in the last decade, either failing to notice that the food expectations of much of the dining public has matured or are simply refusing to innovate for fear of bastardising what they may consider as 'homely traditional' cuisine. At the other end of the spectrum, I'm also all for finding that cosy trattoria known for its spectacular spag bol 'just like nonna used to make'. Do any of these places still exist in Carlton?

Isn't there anyone out there with restaurant recommendations for the area?

Food: 13/20 - Okay food with individual serves enough to feed a small family for a week.
Service: 14/20 - Polite but not too focussed on food; apparently a recent change of Management.
Value: 12/20 - Quite cheerful but not cheap.
R-Factor: 12/20 - Not that likely.
Spot Score: 13/20 - The search continues.

Piccolo Mondo
240 Lygon Street, Carlton VIC.


Cindy said...

I'd recommend Cafe Italia and Trotters. Tiamo is popular too. That said, my favourite restaurants in the neighbourhood aren't Italian. :-)

claire said...

I second Cindy's recommendations. 90% of the Italian joints along Lygon Street are utter crap.
Another place I'd recommend is Woodstock, which is up on Nicholson Street in North Carlton. Excellent pizza and pasta, far more authentic!

Towser said...

Thanks for the suggestions Cindy and Claire! Now we have some places to aim for when next in Carlton, instead of aimlessly wandering up and down the street fending off spruikers.

Duncan | syrupandtang said...

I triple the recommendations (though the gnocchi at Woodstock weren't great). But other than Tiamo, I'm not aware of any other longstanding establishments on the traditional strip that is any form of "quality". Il Gambero is a flashback to student days, but the gluggy charm of the place faded after a second nostalgia-visit. I haven't eaten at University Cafe for years... anyone? It used to have a better reputation.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree. Lygon street isn't what it's perked up to be. You really have to be cautious with which restaurants to go to and which ones to avoid ! :-x I think really does not reflect GOOD Italian food !

Towser said...

Thanks for visiting Mookxi. And yes, the consensus on Lygon Street is that it's very hard to find a restaurant of any half decent quality there. Such a shame.

Mochachocolata Rita said...

oh had me wondering if i've been pooing black after that v-day black pasta lol