WHO would have thought Melbourne needed another Italian restaurant? Who would have thought Melbourne needed another Italian restaurant with a greatest-hits menu that sounds a lot like every red-sauce joint in town?
But here you have it - Lupino, a new Italian restaurant that ticks a hell of a lot of boxes. It's a sunny, breezy, easy place decked out like a Roman trattoria with a menu that reads like a bunch of old friends you fell out of touch with when life and Latin American food got in the way.
Lupino is brought to the top end of Little Collins - between Bar Lourinha and the high, red-brick wall of the Melbourne Club - by an original duo from Becco, Richard Lodge (an owner) and Marco Lori (the head chef), with a little financial help from their friend George ''Press Club'' Sykiotis.
Lodge and Lori aren't trying to ''do'' a Becco, not by any means. You could call this venture, which was several years in the making, a wine bar with good food as much as a casual Italian eatery. It's less formal than Becco, although the real estate has the same DNA of the genetically blessed. Terracotta tiles line the long, marble and timber-topped bar behind which the chefs toil in plain view, and it's nice to welcome back macrame as a design feature, which swathes the lights and boldly sections off the room. It's close-packed, loud - the concrete-amplified din will drown out a soundtrack that runs from Caruso to Italian pop - and busy. Praise the gods that six weeks into its life, they've rethought the no-bookings policy and returned to the old-fashioned way of doing things.
Lori is one of those chefs who can work magic within the proscriptive Italian parameters of only a handful of ingredients on a plate. After Becco, he opened then quickly sold Cafe Matto in Heidelberg, then largely disappeared from view. It's a welcome return to the pans; and on the floor, Lodge is the consummate host with that mix of professionalism and friendly ease that can't be taught.
The back-up floor staff know their way around a lovely, two-page wine list that's ordered by palate weight. It's a good idea, seeing as many diners will be flying blind on the Italian selection, which also explains some hefty mark-ups on that side of things.
A dry, almost salty example of verdicchio - the Umani Ronchi from the Marche region of central Italy ($54) - is a brilliant match with the spaghetti marinara, one of the old-school classics dotting the selection of pasta and risotto. It's a simple thing based on the premise of excellent seafood: mussels, prawns, pipis and chunks of swordfish sauced only by garlic, oil and parsley. The lasagne is also keenly old-school. Arriving in a ceramic boat, it's more interesting than it looks: a gloopy, treacherous landmass with gently nutmeg-spiked bechamel and meat that hasn't been minced into oblivion. It's comfort personified.
You'll witness the revival of the paper doily at Lupino. You'll see the return of the sachets of foil-wrapped butter to go with the excellent ciabatta baked in-house. Now there's a wordless mission statement.
The experience is rustic but not particularly regional. The menu encompasses north and south. It's satisfying, damned tasty and well-priced.
A short menu kicks off with a keenly curated bunch of appetisers. There are polpetti, each sausage of roughly chopped veal wrapped in a lemon leaf before grilling to capitalise on the charry aromatics. There are arancini that manage for once not to be the poor second cousin of the croquette, each golden-fried ball neither too wet nor too dry and with a jewel of oxtail ragu in the centre. Do check out the sformata, a feather-light souffle surrounded by a moat of creamy sauce spiked with the tang of chevre. And the Sicilian-style pickled white anchovies with fennel that jolt the palate.
Lori has been most recently learning the pizza craft at Northcote's excellent Cafe Bedda, and at Lupino his pizza is fine without being Melbourne's finest. The electric oven is turning out bases that are thin and bubbled with heat around the edges - very good - but the slices have a little too much droop factor. The integrity of the topping of prosciutto, rocket and buffalo mozzarella isn't in question, however, nor the jar of sliced bird's-eye chilli in oil that arrives to ladle on at a whim.
What passes for mains showcases the persuasiveness of relatively straightforward Italian cooking. The risotto, made with a deep and soulful stock and pieces of rabbit, porcini, pancetta and green olives, achieves a perfect measure of resistance in each grain of rice.
There's veal saltimbocca, too, with cime di rapa cooked nonna-style until broken down into softness; and a parmesan-crusted semolina gnocchi that's sweet and light, like a little souffle. It's a faithful rendition of a dish that might make you feel sorry for all the times it's been horribly abused elsewhere.
For afters, there's a traditional, paper-wrapped cassata with the pastel layers of frozen watermelon sponge, chocolate, pistachio and vanilla ice-cream. I like my desserts with more texture and more booze. The bomboloni are big - two fist-sized doughnuts to a serve, they have plenty of heft and chew and come slathered with a sticky layer of Italian Nutella (not as sweet as the Aussie version, thankfully) and a side of a sensibility-soothing yoghurt sorbet.
It's food that makes you remember why Melbourne fell in love with Italian food in the first place. It's a restaurant that makes you remember why the city will always welcome yet another Italian joint that really gets it. And yet Lupino isn't going for the grand statement. It's just trying to satisfy. And that it does, very well indeed.
Where 41 Little Collins Street, city
Phone 9639 0333
Cost Typical entree, $17.50; main, $31; dessert, $14
Wine list Interesting Italian and Australian choices at occasionally hefty mark-ups
We drank Umani Ronchi Verdicchio ''Casal di Serra'' (Marches, Italy), $54
Owners Richard Lodge, Marco Lori and George Sykiotis
Chef Marco Lori
Vegetarian Three entrees, two pizzas, two mains
Parking Street or paid
Noise Up there
Service Informally good
Cards AE MC V Diners
Hours Wed-Sun, 11.30am-10.30pm
- 9639 0333
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - Typical entree, $17.50; main, $31; dessert, $14
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Marco Lori
- Owners - Richard Lodge, Marco Lori and George Sykiotis
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, Diners Club
- Opening Hours - Wed-Sun, 11.30am-10.30pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki