Brigante pizza with fior di latte, hot salami and chilli. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Life can be complicated. Food doesn't need to be. And pizza should always be simple. They understand that at Cucina Povera 1889, a restaurant named for the frugal food of peasant Italy, low on flounce, coaxed into deliciousness via loving treatment and nonna's lore.
The "1889" references the year pizza margherita was supposedly first made; it's something of a year zero in Italian cuisine. Cucina Povera riffs gently on tradition but basically, this is food that is what it is, little more and certainly no less.
The modest restaurant is a fantasy writ real: Paul Lapolla gave up his job as a plasterer to live his food dream, fired by cosy childhood memories of his family's wood oven pizza, and encouraged by his wife Laura, who told him to "do it or zip it" after years of "if only". Paul's parents are relishing this chance to showcase their Pugliese cuisine (from the heel of Italy's boot): dad Michele pulls fragrant pizza from the oven, mama Pauline holds the secret to the tiramisu.
1889 references the year margherita pizza was invented. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Much of the produce – the potatoes and peppers coaxed to a lovely stew, the peppery rocket that stars in the parmesan-topped and balsamic-drizzled salad, the turnip tops turned to a pasta-hugging pesto – comes from the family farm near Whittlesea, just north of the city.
Pizza is all about the dough. This one is lightly yeasted (less than a gram per kilo) and risen for three days so it's full-flavoured and gentle on the stomach. Thin bases are lightly licked with San Marzano tomatoes, scattered with simple toppings, and cooked for 3½ minutes until the pie is crisp and the edges are temptingly bubbled. I'm a massive rap for the Brigante pizza, with fior di latte (fresh white cheese), hot salami and chilli. That slow-risen dough releases a full-bodied scud of wheaty flavour, telling you that this food is fortifying.
There are a couple of pasta specials each week. I lucked onto orecchiette with pesto. Orecchiette means "little ears" and I couldn't help but whisper sweet nothings into them: "You are perfect. You complete me."
Honeydew melon wrapped with San Daniele prosciutto. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Charcuterie is served with simple pride, including prosciutto di parma wrapped around honeydew melon as sweet and sticky as the last lurking Halloween lolly.
Cucina Povera is a little neighbourhood place: sit on the pavement with a spritz and your spaniel, send the kids down to grab takeaway, settle in with a robust red from Puglia and feast like a peasant.
Nothing jars, everything flows and, at this crazy time of year, perfect pizza and pasta can be lights that shine bright and clear in even the most dastardly December.
Peppe e patate fritte: stewed potatoes and peppers. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
- 03 9041 0809
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - Entrees $9.50-$18; pizza and pasta $12-$22; desserts $9.50-$10
- Features - Family friendly, Licensed
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tue-Thu and Sun 5.30pm-9pm; Fri-Saturday 5.30pm-10pm
- Author - Dani Valent