Michael Harden

Italian glamour: Inside the revamped Brunetti. Click for more photos

Lygon Street: where to shop eat and drink

Italian glamour: Inside the revamped Brunetti. Photo: Mike Baker

Anybody whose default position on Lygon Street is a bout of eye-rolling and an urge to bang on about tourist traps needs to get a grip. Sure, there is that section of the strip where the touts' siren song of free wine or gratis bruschetta lures unsuspecting passersby to culinary doom on the rocks of crushingly mediocre pizza and pasta but, hey, nobody's perfect. In fact, that cliched red gingham tablecloth view has withered to such a small part of the story now that it's actually gaining a little ironic retro allure.

But the interesting, non-ironic Lygon Street tale right now is the slow but emphatic clawing back of its food credentials to help it emerge, Rocky-like, to once again own the title of Australia's best Little Italy. It even has the world's best margherita, according to the World Pizza Championships held last week in Parma, Italy. Johnny Di Francesco, pizzaiolo and owner of 400 Gradi, took the specialita traditionale garantita pizza prize for his margherita, trumping 600 entrants from 35 countries.

But Little Italy has never been just about great restaurants. It's also about great Italian meat, cheese, coffee, olive oil, wine, bread and gelato all within a couple of blocks' radius. It's about walking into Brunetti at 9pm on a Monday and being confronted by a heaving mass of people knocking back espresso or prosecco or cannoli and feeling like you're in Rome. It's about new generations of Italians, born here and overseas, bringing new ideas - and some thrilling accents - to the street.

Here are some things to drink, do, eat and buy from Lygon Street and the surrounding side streets. It's time to get your Melbourne-Italian on in the robustly beating heart of Little Italy.

Where to shop

Prosciutto

Besides being one of the most beautiful shops on the street, with its marble counters and recycled timber detailing, D.O.C. has a glass-walled, climate-controlled room that houses an immense collection of imported and local cured meats, including up to 60 prosciutto at any one time. There's also a great range of salumi, cheese, groceries, wine and beer.

D.O.C. Delicatessen, 330 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 8482

Cheese

One of the shops that turbo-charged the Carlton renaissance when it opened four years ago, La Latteria is a ''mozzarella laboratory'' with a range that includes mozzarella, bocconcini, ricotta, burrata and fior di latte, all made on site. There's also yoghurt, fresh milk in returnable glass bottles, cream and a range of locally made Italian-style cheeses such as parmigiano and pecorino.

La Latteria, 104 Elgin Street, Carlton, 9347 9009

Bread

Baker D. Chirico fills the artisanal bread void that had plagued Little Italy. With its sensuous timber curves, it's also a front-runner for the ''most beautiful shop in Carlton'' award. Brilliant sourdough bread and a great range of Italian sweet stuff like custard-filled bomboloni make this a must-do pitstop.

Baker D. Chirico, 178 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9349 3445

Meat

Leo Donati has worked as a butcher in Carlton since the early 1960s and his shop, Donati's Fine Meats, is the last butcher standing on the Carlton Lygon stretch. There's a reason it endures, beyond the opera music, the art on the walls and the sentimental vote: it's because Leo has great quality meat (especially pork) and a refreshingly bracing attitude.

Donati's Fine Meats, 402 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 4948

Fresh pasta

Another stalwart that survived Lygon Street's lean period (although it did change hands), Donnini's window display of multicoloured fresh pasta displayed in wooden boxes is as familiar and reassuring as Readings bookstore.

Donnini's Pasta, 398 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 1655

Free-range

Looking like a traditional Italian deli, chock-full of cured meats, cheeses, eggs and groceries, Bezela does tick all the deli boxes (and then some, with take-home meals and fresh meat) but updates the concept so that all the produce in the shop is free-range. The best news? No compromise on flavour.

Bezela Foodstore, 105 Elgin Street, Carlton, 9347 9393

Deli

Having been around since the 1870s, it's worth shopping at King & Godfree for the history alone. That its deli fridge, grocery shelves and wine and liquor section (they have a particularly good selection of amaro) all have a strong Italian presence makes a visit here a no-brainer. A big fitout is planned for early next year.

King & Godfree, 293 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 1619

Wine

Bottega Tasca is a small gem of a wine store stocking labels from all over, but its Italian selection is both impressive and well priced. Prosecco fans will be well pleased.

Bottega Tasca, 321 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 7379

The tour

Allan Campion, the owner of Melbourne Food Experiences, a company that leads guided tours through Melbourne's food strongholds, used to avoid Lygon Street altogether, diplomatically saying that it was going through a "lull". "But then three or four years ago all these exciting new retailers went in," he says, "and they've kept coming so it's become really, really good again."

MFE's Lygon Street and Carlton Tours include tastings and prosecco and run every second month.

Melbourne Food Experiences, 1800 801 838 or melbournefoodexperiences.com.au

Where to eat

Those after cutting-edge Italian dining will find better options further afield. But what do you want? This isn't Flinders Lane so, please, adjust your expectations.

The enormous terrazzo, mirrored mosh pit that is Brunetti pumps out coffee, pastries, pizza, wine and pasta in staggering volumes and has become, through both history and efficiency, a quintessential Melbourne-Italian experience.

History is something Lygon Street does well and Tiamo, with its atmospheric dark timber interior (the original shop at least) and mix-and-match pasta menu is on the sentimental list of anybody (who has a heart) who's ever visited the street. Trotters and the University Cafe offer a similar mix of nostalgia and familiarity.

Students of pizza history might want to give Toto's, the first pizzeria in Australia, a go. Those after a more modern and arguably authentic pizza experience might prefer D.O.C. Pizza, though attracting the attention of the handsome Italian waiters away from each other and their own reflections in the espresso machine can be trying.

Those after decent fresh pasta and the sound of Italian will find what they seek at D.O.C. Espresso while the Carlton Wine Room, though not strictly Italian, has enough Italianess going on in its food and wine (the Italian stuff on the wine list is particularly noteworthy) to be counted in the throng. Next door, one of the great and grand Carlton stalwarts, Masani, delivers the trad Italian goods with civilised aplomb. Further up the hill, 400 Gradi's pizza has a generous topping of DOP-designated buffalo mozzarella, naturally sweet tomato sugo and a few whole basil leaves, with a base made according to the stringent standards promoted by Naples' Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.

For great, homestyle Sicilian food head to Bar Idda and the nearby Abruzzo Club, which does good, old-school handmade pasta amid classic Aussie-Italian Club brown.

400 Gradi, 99 Lygon Street, Brunswick, 9380 2320

Abruzzo Club, 377 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9387 5955

Bar Idda, 132 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9380 5339

Brunetti, 380 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 2801

Carlton Wine Room, 172-174 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9347 2626

D.O.C. Espresso, 326 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 8482

D.O.C. Pizza, 295 Drummond Street, Carlton, 9347 2998

Masani, 313 Drummond Street, Carlton. 9347 5610

Tiamo, 303-307 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 0911

Toto's, 101 Lygon Street, Carlton. 9347 1630

Trotters, 400 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 5657

University Cafe, 257 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 2142

Where to drink

One of the best examples of the influence of a new generation on Lygon Street is at Jimmy Watson's. The original wine shop and restaurant, housed in the still-striking Robin Boyd-designed building, have been joined in recent years by two bars - Wolf's Lair, in the laneway behind Jimmy's, and Thin Red Line, upstairs in the original building. Opened by Jimmy's grandsons, Simon and Nigel, the bars have more of a cocktail focus than the original.

Those after a more overtly Italian-themed drink should drop into D.O.C. Espresso after 4pm for a traditional aperitif (small snacks included with the price of a drink) while the Carlton Wine Room and the Town Mouse both acknowledge their place in Little Italy with a good smattering of Italian beverages on their drinks lists.

Carlton Wine Room, 172-174 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9347 2626

D.O.C. Espresso, 326 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 8482

Jimmy Watson's, 333 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 3985

The Town Mouse, 312 Drummond Street, Carlton, 9347 3312

Where to recaffeinate

According to Epicure's coffee writer Matt Holden, editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide, Lygon Street coffee has "an old-school spine".

"The attitude is very much, 'This is the way we've always made coffee and we're not changing', which is very much like in Italy, really," he says. But 'third wave' coffee venues, the places where provenance, freshness, technique and method are taken very seriously, have started to infiltrate.

None of them have yet breached the Lygon Street barricade but places like Market Lane Coffee (next door to Baker D. Chirico), Assembly (which also sells beautiful coffee-making equipment), Vincent the Dog and Campos Coffee have started to colonise the streets around the main drag, providing an alternative to a Brunetti espresso.

Assembly, 60 Pelham Street, Carlton, assemblystore.com

Campos Coffee, 144 Elgin Street, Carlton, 9347 7445

Market Lane Coffee, 176 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9804 7434

Vincent the Dog, 348 Drummond Street, Carlton, 9348 2068

Where to learn

Enoteca Sileno is north of Little Italy's main drag but its brilliant selection of Italian wine, groceries (including some of the best olive oil in town), cheese, chocolate, truffles and antipasti plus an Italian wine bar with great food makes it essential to any Italophile. Even better, it holds cooking classes in purpose-built rooms upstairs, ranging from basic pasta-making through to salumi master classes.

Enoteca Sileno, 920 Lygon Street, Carlton North, 9389 7000

And, of course, gelato

Many Melburnians cut their gelati teeth on Lygon Street and while competition has become more cutthroat across Melbourne, there's still joy to be had in the heartland.

Casa del Gelato is one of the longest running gelaterias in the country and continues to dish up the good stuff, old-school style, while Il Dolce Freddo mixes it up with non-traditional flavours like durian and green tea.

Pidapipo Test Lab, owned by Lisa Valmorbida, sits next to her family's shop, King & Godfree, and is a test run for the gelateria that will eventually be part of the main shop. The technique is classic, the flavours deep and marvellous.

Casa Del Gelato, 163 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 0220

Gelobar, 74 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9388 1419

Il Dolce Freddo, 116 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9639 3344

Pidapipo Test Lab, 222 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9347 4596