La dolce vita? It translates as Becco, the timeless purveyor of Italian romance. Consistency is the key to Becco's place in Melbourne's dining psyche. The city's best fish and chips is soldered happily to the menu, as is chilli-flour dusted calamari with rocket salad and piquant aioli. Becco knows exactly what its fan club wants. From the crusty excellence of the bread to the wonderfully light gnocchi anchored in a rustic ossobuco ragout to rich twice-cooked duck. Finish with a vibrant trio of filled doughnuts - chocolate, lemon custard and raspberry - and near-obligatory espresso.
11-25 Crossley Street, Melbourne, 9663 3000
With its moody ambience and well-drilled staff, this 25-year-old institution is often chosen by Melburnians as the stage for milestones. The food closes the deal, all classically minded, quietly luxurious Italian. Pasta is turned correctly: linguine is properly al dente, and dressed with artfully spliced prawns, tomatoes, garlic, chilli. Mains might include roasted duckling, perfectly crisp-skinned, or wild boar, braised in wine and accompanied by radicchio and sweet chestnuts. For less formal occasions, check Bar Di Stasio: a stuzzuchini-sized sample of the Di Stasio experience.
31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 9525 3999
A big, classy space once the workplace of chain-smoking radio journos, Cecconi's still has a beguiling big-city feeling. The glittering stage of the open kitchen, dark nooks, luxe timbers and fabrics, together with copious waiters and a capacious menu, promise upmarket professionalism. Nonna Olimpia, now in her 70s, still comes to the kitchen mid-afternoon to oversee the immersion of some prized goat in a vat of good wine for a five-hour simmer. Kingfish with blood orange vinaigrette pleases the sophisticates, while the suits put calamari fritti and sirloin with polenta chips on expenses. Brisk service matches the vibe, as does the polished wine list.
Flinders Lane Basement, 61 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 8663 0500
The locals keep Centonove busy, coming back for consistently good classical Italian fare and superb service. This 1930s corner landmark has the buzz of a bar downstairs and a more traditional restaurant feel upstairs. Sometimes the dishes are simple, as in fresh, moist flounder that appears often as a special and lifts off the bone; or zesty lemon-crusted cotoletta topped with cabbage, radicchio and parmesan salad. And sometimes they are more artful, like pork- and veal-filled agnolotti made with paper-thin pasta, soaked in sage-butter sauce cut with aged balsamic. Either way, you'll be tempted by the coffee-soaked tiramisu.
109 Cotham Road, Kew, 9817 6468
With so much trattoria-level informality in Melbourne, it feels almost a novelty to arrive at Church Street Enoteca's immaculate, deco-inflected room, set with well-spaced, linen-clothed tables and vintage posters. The food reinforces the sense of occasion, pushing the Italian envelope far past comfort-food status. Carne cruda is characteristic, being all it should be and more: grass-fed eye fillet, set on an egg-yolk emulsion, is hand-chopped, its proper texture contrasted with capers - crisp-fried for crunch - and onion rings. Char-grilled sea bream fillets come with tomatoes two ways: first as a broth flushed with white wine, chilli, fennel and shallots, redolent of a refined bouillabaisse; the second as a bracing sorbet. Wet-roasted suckling lamb is more classic, but its parmesan crust is just as beautifully executed. Desserts are modern and excellent, exemplified by an artfully plated platter of gianduja, hazelnut dacquoise, caramelised banana and brown butter ice-cream. A complete package.
527 Church Street, Richmond, 9428 7898
''Have you been here before?'' This is what black-clad waitstaff ask after settling you at a table. They will explain there is no menu at this narrow, two-level terrace. Ask for a rundown on today's Sardinian-inspired dishes - many using produce from owner Pietro Porcu's Yarck farm - or better still, settle back and trust the kitchen to deliver a procession of vibrant, generous plates. It might be antipasti, sometimes a soup, maybe pasta, fish if you like, or meat. Offerings start small - perhaps salmon carpaccio with green tomato cream, juicy crumbed mussels in the shell, a little octopus - and get more robust. Slow-cooked goat might appear wrapped in pasta rosettes, in a citrus-scented broth dotted with diced vegetables. Fish might rest on barley mingling with crabmeat, capers and olives. Elegant dolce feature seasonal sorbets, perhaps with vanilla yoghurt mousse on a pistachio crust. Da Noi has soul in spades, and the quality of cooking to back it up.
95 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 9866 5975
This corner pub is a Richmond landmark. Behind the Felliniesque decayed exterior, the dining room is sedate and comfortable. With its subdued light, stencilled walls, drapes, bentwood chairs and crisp linen tables, it is a favourite with business types and locals. Expect Italian dishes such as gnocchi, pasta, ragu and risotto featuring classic ingredients in creative combinations. Owner and executive chef Valerio Nucci draws on his northern Italian heritage for crafted choices of boar, duck, goat and rabbit, as well as chicken and fish. Maltagliata - brilliant breadcrumb pasta with succulent prawns - is a signature for good reason, but other standouts include duck with semolina gnocchi and orange and juniper-sharpened sauce, and baby goat braised in wine to juicy tenderness. Loosen the belt before calling for sumptuous summer zabaglione or, in cooler weather, chocolate marquise. Or, hit the pub lounge for a cleansing ale.
333 Burnley Street, Richmond, 9429 2530
To dine in the glorious Mural Room with its imposing art, impeccable service and perfectly pitched lighting is to immerse yourself in the history of Melbourne dining. But Guy Grossi and his team are running a restaurant, not a museum, constantly evolving a menu classic enough to keep people happy, and contemporary enough to keep them interested. While an appetiser is a little bowl of heavenly old-school pasta e fagioli, an entree of ravioli is actually paper-thin parcels of lardo (cured pork fat) filled with sea-sweet spanner crab. Seared wallaby fillet intuitively teamed with cauliflower caponata and toasty spelt, and steamed Glacier 51 toothfish with spiced salt tick the indigenous and sustainable boxes; there might be a flavour-first zampone of pig's trotter filled with housemade cotechino sausage on a bed of lentils for traditionalists. Also check out the one-hatted Grossi Florentino Grill (same address).
80 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9662 1811
Il Bacaro sets the template for the perfect Italian restaurant. There's the setting, a cloistered space winking invitingly behind timber venetians; the cheery brio of the Italian-speaking waiters; the wine list, a lengthy ode to the homeland. After 11 years in the job, chef David Dellai nails exactly what the crowd wants - lightly fried calamari on rocket is rustically straightforward, while kingfish crudo is thrillingly modern with pickled cucumber, red grapes, bottarga mayo and pink peppercorns. Pasta is outstanding - lemon-infused tagliolini buddying up with raw tuna and salmon roe - while mains might be nonna-style roasted kid in a wet braise with tomato and kipflers, or more art-directed venison. The signature agave cheesecake with violet ice-cream and fairy floss finishes things with a youthful flourish.
168-170 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 9654 6778
Sarti has changed. Much-travelled head chef Paolo Masciopinto has revamped the menu with seasonal classics and just a hint of quirk. Start your meal with fritto misto - a board piled with lightly battered calamari, soft-shell crab, whitebait and zucchini slices served with a tangy chilli tartare. Mozzarella roll with cured ocean trout and avocado is an '80s flashback, garnished with fiery ''chilli paper'' and pops of caviar. A bright, rich saffron risotto alla Milanese features medallions of salty veal, sweet tomato and a spike of bone marrow, while a pink rack and fillet of lamb with pistachio crust is juicy and creatively presented. Desserts are daring and inventive, especially a bitter-sweet dark chocolate semifreddo with honeycomb and Tasmanian pepper that is a riot of textures and temperatures.
6 Russell Place, Melbourne, 9639 7822
These reviews, taken from The Age Good Food Guide 2014, have been edited for length.