The garganelli pasta is one of 16 types made by Brendan Sheldrick and his team. Photo: Eddie Jim
I thought they didn't make restaurants like this any more. The sort of restaurant where you might pause on entering to readjust to the expensive gleam of mahogany tiles, the clack of marble floors, the billowy fouff of soft white curtains, the gentle light of chandeliers hanging from ornate recessed domes. Where opera, not Ibiza, provides the soundtrack. Where divorce from the everyday is complete on lowering your grateful bottom onto the banquette's russet velvet cushions, at a marble-topped table, with a white-jacketed waiter upselling mineral water.
Bravissimo! Neil Perry's third Crown restaurant, housed in a peculiar glass box jutting onto the riverfront promenade, could so easily have been a white elephant. Instead, designer Iain Halliday's wide-format cinemascope has nailed the link missing from Melbourne's restaurant life.
It is a throwback to European glamour, the grand tour and old New York. Its reference points are Harry's Bar, Cipriani and Babbo. Then you hit the wall of black-and-white portraits of famous Italians - Armani, Sinatra, Loren - and another layer emerges. It's a Rat Pack time machine.
Rosetta is a throwback to European glamour, the grand tour and old New York. Photo: Eddie Jim
You get what you pay for, and I'm guessing James Packer is several million dollars poorer for Rosetta. But fit-outs are only foreplay. The Geiger counter still jumping long after being seated is all thanks to Perry, aka Australia's Mr Produce-Driven, and his take on the world's ultimate produce-driven cuisine.
He and Crown are old buddies thanks to modern steakhouse Rockpool and regional Chinese Spice Temple. Now at Rosetta, he is taking the Italian challenge with food that doesn't try any funny business. There are no avant-garde tangents - it's orthodox to the point of asceticism, yet it dazzles within the tightest parameters.
Most dishes are straightforward. A cold starter of globe artichoke hearts with roasted almonds, lemon rind and parsley leaves. Tuna braised into yielding loveliness with nutty farro and scorched green peppers. San Daniele prosciutto, coral pink and sweetly porky with shaved cabbage, parmesan and balsamic with just the right note of musty acidity. A seafood grill that's simple perfection with no more than oil and lemon.
It helps that Perry is doing the rounds of the floor. He's right to press on us the ricotta made each day in time for lunch. It's all silky heaven, pure creaminess, textured like a cloud.
Not everyone has basked in the sunshine of Rosetta's love. There has been grumbling about the service. Luxe loses its sheen when your Sardinian vermentino or Piedmontese nebbiolo, chosen from a list that reads like a love letter to Italy, fails to arrive. It may salve hurt feelings that, in my experience, all Perry restaurants get better with time.
The wood-burning Beech oven makes its presence felt across the menu. A compelling pumpkin risotto is made from whole pumpkins roasted overnight, the resulting sweet baby-mush given body with white wine, onion and garlic, toasted hazelnuts and the rice itself - a special carnaroli aged in the husk (Google ''aquerello'' for the full low-down) that's nutty and firmly resists the teeth.
The same bold firmness - what the Italians call iron string (''filo di ferro'') - characterises the garganelli, one of 16 types of pasta made by chef Brendan Sheldrick and co. The grooved squares folded on themselves are sauced in tomato and chilli, with firm pieces of squid and a briny blizzard of shaved bottarga for luxury and earthiness.
Mains are nakedly minimalist - lots of roasted meats at prices that might make you gasp (tripe at $39!). Just sit back and think of great produce, such as the sweetly gamey partridge with tomato, fennel and green olives, or rosemary-scented rabbit cacciatore with a crisp wedge of grilled polenta.
Rosetta exhibits Perry's love of the big menu, but there's not a dud in sight. Well, maybe desserts didn't excite as much, but that could be because they came after the sweet perfection of the suckling pig, milk fleshed and with crackle like salty toffee, just a splash of balsamic and olive oil and the zing of mustard fruits. Arriving hard on its heels, a vanilla panna cotta in a moat of strawberry and rhubarb compote is a pleasant formality.
Rosetta is a brave gamble, even in this location. High rollers will love it, of course, but everyday punters such as me might also appreciate the dazzling produce and pitch-perfect treatment behind the expense and fin de siecle glamour. I'm a fan. Sort the service and watch out, Melbourne.
The best bit Old-world opulence
The worst bit Sometimes sketchy service
Go-to dish Garganelli with squid, bottarga, tomato and chilli, $35
How we score
Larissa Dubecki is a reviewer for The Age Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- (03) 8648 1999
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - Typical starter, $26; main, $45; dessert, $19
- Features - Licensed, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
- Chef(s) - Neil Perry and Brendan Sheldrick
- Owners - Neil Perry, Trish Richards and David Doyle
- Opening Hours - Tues-Sun, noon-3pm; daily 6-11pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki