631-633 Church St Richmond, VIC 3121(03) 9421 4599
|Opening hours||Daily, 7am-late|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos|
"SINCE EVERYONE IS IN THE same predicament, restaurant lines are often a good way to meet people and make friends. Be this as it may, most people when they go to eat dinner do so because they are hungry and want to spend a pleasant evening, and standing in line for an hour … tends to leave one neither satiated nor in a very friendly frame of mind.'' The Moscow Gourmet, 1974.
Lightning strikes twice. Baby, the Italian answer to Chris Lucas' runaway Thai locomotive Chin Chin, has opened to the same scenes of mass hysteria assuming the form of queues 100 deep. Why? Who knows, but it's the restaurant equivalent of the Beatles.
How a humble Italian tratt serving pizza and pasta (pretty good pizza and pasta, but, you know …) can inspire such devotion ought to be on a marketing syllabus. Each opening of a Lucas restaurant proves he has tapped into a gestalt, mystically attuned to the needs of his young dining acolytes.
But as Moscow Gourmet points out across the distance of 38 years and a defunct socio-political philosophy, queueing sucks. You might opt for less-fashionable dining times and establishments, but Lucas is smart to bank on the cannibalistic logic of human nature: if there is a queue, whatever waits at the end must be worth it. As far as I can see, his formula for success takes the tried and true - use good produce, cook it well and don't leave your audience feeling ripped off - and sprinkles it with the fairy dust of pop culture. Hence Baby's bespoke neon lights, which make pop-art allusions to genitalia. Another first.
Fine diner Pearl has been erased from this corner spot. After a cut and blow-dry it looks like funky restaurants tend to do now: more Scandi than Italy, with an Ikea's worth of blond wood, tan-coloured canvas used liberally for warmth and texture, and bar seating around the open kitchen all the better to soak up the mise-en-scene of stressed chefs.
It has the feel of a family restaurant - not too fancy, durable, wipeable - and at an early hour before the queue-nistas take over it appears well-behaved young diners are made welcome. There's one in the bathroom, stripped to her undies after a spill but still exclaiming happily to her mum about the pizza. Quite rightly. The new Melbourne norm, it's crisp rather than crunchy and passes the one-hand test.
Like all good pizza, it makes a virtue of its simplicity. Silver dashes of salty anchovy season a zucchini version emblazoned with the sunshiny yellow of the flowers, tiny green discs of baby stem and mint leaves trapped in a puddle of fiore di latte. Guanciale - cured pork jowl - is a melting moment of porcine perfection, matched with non-rubbery egg yolks for the perfect iteration of the breakfast-for-dinner trend.
You could hit the pizza menu hard and walk away happy, but queueing for longer than eating would make a mockery of the exercise. The intrinsic modesty of the starters list is right for the clientele, who probably won't care that the charcuterie, which wins points for the lardo and loses them for an ordinary bresaola, isn't sliced to order. There's a snowy tumble of fresh buffalo ricotta curds, all salty-lactic with a slightly sour edge; and pink slices of olive-studded mortadella, branded by the griller for smoky sweetness. Under-seasoned fried sardines with tired-looking battered zucchini ooze oil, and a trio of polenta wedges topped with gorgonzola, salami and mushrooms is unremarkable.
Pasta is a good bet. The ragu served with firm-to-the-bite rigatoni is a good 'un, the beef cooked until fibrous but not stringy and not too stewy (nor, conversely, gelatinous - but you'll know what kind of ragu does it for you).
A main of white-wine-braised rabbit - good value at $24.50 - is expert cooking of a difficult meat with the sophisticated note of tarragon. And tiramisu is no cliche when it's seven layers of happiness dusted in chocolate.
Baby could be resting on its laurels, but the Italian-leaning wine list suggests care as well as commitment to the thinner wallets of the Gen Y crowd, and the waiters are doing as well as can be expected under a state of siege.
Pizza and pasta are a big subject in this Italian-hearted town, and the food doesn't quite make the top of the league table, but that hardly matters to the crowds that materialise out of nowhere each evening.
There is alchemy at work here. Chris Lucas must be laughing.
The best bit The energetic vibe
The worst bit Getting a table
Go-to dish Guanciale alla carbonara pizza
Wine list Italian-leaning with enough affordable options
We drank Arrivo Rosato di Nebbiolo (Adelaide Hills, SA), $56
Vegetarian Four starters, nine pizzas, four pastas
Dietary Ample choice under starters and mains, gluten-free pizza options
Noise An ear-crunching roar
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.