161 Nicholson St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Lunch Thu-Tue; dinner Mon-Sat|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||0483 800 861|
It has been just over a year since the pandemic threw most people's lives into the air like confetti. Last April, former Grossi Florentino chef Andrea Vignali was in a common pickle: his visa tied him to a closed business that could not afford to keep on all its staff for whom they received no JobKeeper allowance.
So he started cooking at home, then moved to a commercial kitchen, where his pasta sauces, lobster ravioli, and soft-centred chocolate puddings managed not only to save his bacon, but became so popular he was able to pull multiple other visa holders into a spaghetti safety net.
Cue 2021 and he, along with friend and business partner Davide Bonadiman and front-of-house manager Michelle Badek, are now enjoying another emotional rollercoaster – operating their own Carlton restaurant and provedore, Al Dente Enoteca.
We're all craving a good story, and this double-fronted space on Nicholson Street fits the bill. It has been stylishly renovated in two parts – a crimson-walled shop where you can buy frozen fresh pastas, sauces and premium Italian condiments, and a sleek dining room with brushed concrete and cream plaster finishes softened by tables dressed in crisp, ironed linens.
There is a short but luxurious menu that sticks to the essentials. Focaccia arrives hot from the oven, all fluff and crunchy exterior with a notch of chunky green olive butter rather than as a twist on offering straight oil.
Oysters come tethered so you get the full brine from unmooring them yourself, and dressed with a mignonette made with premium six-year-aged San Giacomo vinegar – a product they're selling in their shop market and whose well-developed profile sells itself.
The same could be said for the sweet, sticky Modena balsamic vinegar offered at table to lift your otherwise classic union of a cream-filled burrata and a meaty slice of late-season tomato.
No one is stopping you from ordering all four pastas, but the luxurious nature of all of them should. Vignali favours large-scale filled pastas. For the cacio e pepe tortellini that means four fat bishops' hats the size of a plump fig filled with a cheesy lava and doused on top with a buttery, peppery and just slightly acidic wash of butter and cheese.
The pasta del giorno on our visit features three mighty raviolino filled with a sweet mixture of lobster meat and ricotta and washed in a bisque sauce that perfectly extracts the essence of crustacean, has a sweet edge from a base of apples and oranges and steers well clear of prawn-head pong.
Al Dente is currently only operating by day. Frustratingly for the team, they have been stymied by another reality - a return of the red tape that was temporarily loosened last year to help businesses any way possible. Al Dente is still waiting for a liquor licence, a major part of their business plan, which will allow them to serve (and sell retail) Victorian wines, sourced straight from the makers and a few star Italian imports they have waiting in the wings. Until then, this is a dry house – but a clever one.
Badek is versed at selling the softer stuff, with a background in the coffee world (ONA, St Ali). Currently you can drink the booze-free top shelf: an aperitivo made with Seedlip, a preferred gin replacement. They are also serving two of the NON wine range, which was developed by a former Noma chef who desired craving-sating wine alternatives for those who don't want to get lashed with lunch. And lately, that's more people than you think. There's plenty to keep you occupied here besides plonk.
Perhaps the upside is that you're unencumbered by booze when the festival of richness continues with a main course that is classic to its core – a sticky, slow-braised piece of beef cheek washed in a sticky red wine jus and served with one perfectly poached Dutch carrot and a swipe of creamed potato. As a side or vegetarian main is a thick slab of butternut pumpkin infused with a little heat from a chilli-oil glaze, dessed with sweet dabs of Rooftop Honey and onion puree.
Dessert? Those soft-centred chocolate puddings will call out to those who used them like an emotional life raft in lockdown, but there is also a lemon tart (crostata al limone) with its sharp, silky centre offset by pure cream, though note that its thick buttery base makes it better for hand-held crunching rather than awkward fork dissection.
I can't wait to see the finished picture. I hope this becomes the success story we crave.
A pandemic side hustle is now an all singing pasta haven and enoteca.
Pro Tip: Stop by the shop to buy provisions, or order online via Cookaborough.
Go-to Dish: Pasta of the day, whatever it is.