Caterina's Cucina e Bar review

Caterina's is housed in a basement on Queen Street.
Caterina's is housed in a basement on Queen Street. Photo: Simon Schluter

221 Queen St Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Mon-Fri noon-3.30pm
Features Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Bar, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Events
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Michele Usci
Seats 90
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9670 8488

The loyalty runs deep here at this the 23-year-old, lunch-only Italian run by Caterina Borsato, and it's not hard to see why. This is one of the last, great bastions of proprietor-led restaurants of Melbourne – born of an era before chefs stole the spotlight and institutions were living, breathing expressions of their hosts.

Proof of Borsato's sway is plentiful. At her first restaurant (Borsato in Fitzroy North) she so thoroughly established herself as an intuitive, engaging host that when she ventured out solo in '95 and faced banks unwilling to back a woman in her 30s (that risky childbearing age) a network rallied, Kickstarter-style, to fund the lease on the Queen Street basement.

It's an investment few would regret. You'll probably see some of them at lunchtime ordering their vitello tonnato and a pork chop "cooked the way I like it – you know how." They do know how. Borsato and her long-time manager Tanya Pretoro have barely left their posts in the restaurant's 23 years and the all-female, mostly Italian team command the room with so much confidence it's little wonder that most of Melbourne's power posse come to relax for a while.

Vitello tonnato is a signature.
Vitello tonnato is a signature. Photo: Simon Schluter

There's clear worship of old school Melbourne hospitality here. Borsato's Venetian-born father worked the floors of the late, great Society for 20 years.

Look closely at the room, a den of brick and wooden bones made elegant with artworks and linens, and you'll spot keepsakes of great restaurants past. The marble tables are from Mietta's, the industrial scales by the door came from Stephanie's.

The menu, however, cooked these days by chef Marcello Mariani, rides the line between classic and modern, with a solid lean towards Italy's north.

Gnocchi with olives and sage.
Gnocchi with olives and sage. Photo: Simon Schluter

So. How to order? Much like Flower Drum, a menu lists the stayers: vitello tonnato, argued to be the best in town; stracciatella (not the cheese, but a bright broth with egg whisked through to form the namesake striations) and beef carpaccio so delicate it tears like tissue paper as you wrap its bounty of pecorino and shaved fennel.

But it's hard not to be entranced by the dozen daily specials rattled off like a piece of performance art.

Only a fool's not ordering pasta. The gnocchi with rabbit ragu razzed with olives is a classic, but a squid ink taglioni tangled with slow-cooked cherry tomatoes, impossibly tender Moreton Bay bugs and shavings of bottarga is a masterclass in acid balance.

Go-to dessert: the budino di cioccolato might be served with fresh fig.
Go-to dessert: the budino di cioccolato might be served with fresh fig. Photo: Simon Schluter

Are there figs? Get them. A long-time customer has been trading the crop from his 150-year-old tree for wine for a decade.

They might be classically stuffed with molten Lombardian gorgonzola dolce, and twinned with prosciutto from the north; or freshening the go-to budino di cioccolato dessert that's somewhere between a custard and ganache, sauced up and framed with fizzing fresh honeycomb.

There's more. So much more. Impressively juicy rabbit loin encased in hazelnut, herb and breadcrumb; bottles that run the gamut from mortgagey barolos to the fun stuff from Farr; maybe, if you're lucky, a nip of Borsato's 81-year-old mum's plum grappa that smacks just a little of marzipan.

Caterina Borsato inside her eponymous restaurant.
Caterina Borsato inside her eponymous restaurant. Photo: Simon Schluter

Borsato doesn't like Caterina's to be called a club as it hints of men's-only joints and exclusion. It couldn't be further from that. Come once, be welcomed. You'll want to join for life.

Est. 1995

Famous diners: Malcolm Fraser enjoyed a nice bottle of wine and fell asleep at the table.

Go-to Dish: Vitello tonnato; gnocchi; beef carpaccio; all things fig (in season).