501 Highett Rd Highett, VIC 3190
|Opening hours||Wed-Fri 5.30-11pm; Sat noon-11pm; Sun noon-10pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9191 4566|
Since the 1950s Melbourne has had red sauce running through its veins. But it wasn't until this past decade that restaurants dared to thrust pasta into the spotlight as the main event.
Before Tipo 00, Lello and Park Street Pasta and Wine, however well-crafted the tortellini and casarecce, it was the bridesmaid (albeit a very popular one at places such as Il Bacaro, Rosa's Canteen, Cafe Di Stasio and Cellar Bar) but rarely the bride. No more.
The formula of good wine, a sleek room and comforting carb-focused menus is everywhere you look. Including Highett, where Abbiocco is delivering that holy trinity to a high standard.
Abbiocco comes with strong credentials. Glenn Mill and chef Jarrod Amos met working at Jacques Reymond's now-closed Prahran restaurant, and travelled Italy together for a decade. Amos has time clocked at Church Street Enoteca and the pair also own Hampton Wine Co. (Their third partner, Pierre Geoffroy, sold out this year.)
The Highett opening follows the familiar tumultuous path of 2020. The pair were due to launch last April, delayed until June and had 10 days of service before The Great Lockdown. But a strong foundation shows through.
You would never know that this venue had just battled through another circuit-breaker or the industry-wide staff shortage that saw them lose a manager in February. Service runs on rails from the gentle reminder to check in, to help in deciphering Mills' mostly Italian wine list, which also has a smattering of Australian-Italian varieties.
That smooth service meets slick lines. A warm, glowing space in timber, terrazzo and olive greens begins with a cosy bar, and runs through to a dining room and outdoor terrace that means, even with current restrictions, there are enough souls that you feel the buzz.
Pasta is the main event. So much so that only one steak is served as a non-carb main. But the fringe benefits haven't been overlooked and Amos shows he has a tight hand on the wheel with the opening snacks.
Crisp little whitebait are served with a lemon and caper-sharpened aioli. Scallops with a perfect golden-brown seal are bedded in a mellow fennel puree with a house take on Sicily's ubiquitous marinade-slash-dressing salmoriglio, here made with orange, lemon, garlic, anchovies and chives.
Bresaola is a standout. The air-dried beef salumi that hails from Italy's north is made in-house. After curing in a salt-and-spice rub involving peppercorn, juniper berries and bay leaf, Amos takes the drying only so far. The result, instead of the sometimes pre-jerky texture, is soft, velvety waves you can spin around grissini or load onto crunchy, still-warm sourdough with tiny onions pickled in balsamic.
Before the pasta begins, it bears noting Abbiocco is named for the fugue-like state inspired by drifting into a food coma. They mean it.
About six pastas rotate on and off the menu with the seasons and the kitchen's whims. Squid ink spaghetti is currently tangling with clams and salt-cured fish roe, bottarga.
There is a less commonly seen pasta, paccheri (tubes so wide they're named for the way they "slap"), served with a slow-braised ragu.
If righteousness strikes, wholemeal fettuccine has a nuttiness from the germ that melds well with a mushroom ragu and the sharp tang of parmesan.
But at the onset of truffle season, it's unlikely you'll be able to, or should, go past strozzapreti (long twists excellently known as priest stranglers) with a cheesy, guanciale-flecked carbonara, which activates the heady, earthy funk of Victoria's first black gold harvest.
It's tough to choose. You're welcome to share. But you could also easily approach Abbiocco alone, perched at the window, or use it purely as a bar. And not just because it is mere paces from the train station.
There is a rich by-glass list that runs from Mocandunda's Clare Valley riesling to a barolo on pour for $26. Most bottles sit at a friendly $45-$80 mark and twisted classic cocktails have an Italian theme.
A peach puree and prosecco bellini is a purist hat tip to Venice's sadly closed Harry's Bar, but there is also a love child of the Aperol spritz and a margarita, the bitter orange liqueur shaken with tequila and lemon.
Zeppole with orange sherbet and custard. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Dessert? There's Nutella gelati if you're still riding the craze. But if you have to make a difficult choice between the zeppole, Italy's large-format, cakey doughnut balls, here lifted with an orange sherbet and a swipe of custard, or the tiramisu, the latter is the winner.
A free-form ragged scoop is crowned with a blizzard of dark chocolate like iron filings drawn to a magnet. There's enough coffee in the mix to stave off your food coma for the trip home. But set an alarm just in case.