Connie's Italian Diner review

The kitchen delivers a menu that’s as flexible as it is fun at Russell Street's new pizza joint.
The kitchen delivers a menu that’s as flexible as it is fun at Russell Street's new pizza joint. Photo: Chloe Dann

234B Russell St Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Dinner Wed-Sat
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Family friendly, Groups
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 03 8413 2970

Regarding Italian food, my opinions are strong. And if there's one thing I'd like to shout from the rooftops of Melbourne, it would be this: we have our own Italian culture! Stop copying American-Italian food, itself a byproduct of immigration, while ignoring the greatness of what our own history has created.

Why do we long to be anyone but ourselves? If I'm going to forgive this tendency, however, it would be in the company of Michael and Zara Madrusan, owners of the Made in the Shade group.

Heartbreaker, which they opened downstairs on this site in 2015, has always aimed to evoke the particular magic of an American dive bar, something that really has no equivalence in Australian history.

'Grandma pie' is a thick-crusted, rectangular pizza that Italian-American grandmas would make at home.
'Grandma pie' is a thick-crusted, rectangular pizza that Italian-American grandmas would make at home. Photo: Chloe Dann

(Why should it, when we have every kind of pub imaginable?) Connie's, named after Michael's grandmother, was originally the name for the pizza window operating out of Heartbreaker. That pizza was appropriately based on an American slice joint and became the stuff of late-night legend.

So it stands to reason that, should the owners look to expand, they'd stick with the Americana theme. Connie's Italian Diner, which sits directly above Heartbreaker, does the job of conjuring a New Jersey red-sauce joint almost too well.

Red vinyl booths, dim lighting punctuated by the glitter of disco balls, nostalgic '80s posters – even the leadlight shades on the lights above the booths are amusingly authentic.

Veal tonnato is a reassuring classic, the soft meat in the smooth tuna sauce punctuated by crispy capers.
Veal tonnato is a reassuring classic, the soft meat in the smooth tuna sauce punctuated by crispy capers. Photo: Chloe Dann

The kitchen is delivering a menu that's as flexible as it is fun. There are plenty of drink-friendly snacks, such as savoury fritters, called zeppole, with anchovy ($8) or fried provolone with tangy red sauce ($11). Veal tonnato ($16) is a reassuring classic, the soft meat in the smooth tuna sauce punctuated by crispy capers.

The pizza, which Connie's launched during lockdown as a takeaway option, is described as "grandma pie", which may be a nod to Connie herself or may be referring to the style of pizza known as grandma pie in New York and beyond: a thick-crusted, rectangular pizza that Italian-American grandmas would make at home.

I've also seen Connie's pizza compared to Detroit-style offerings but do we really care where the inspiration came from if the result is delicious? And it is: cheesy, crusty, saucy and, if you order the carne pizza ($30), loaded with pepperoni, fennel sausage and prosciutto.

Spaghettini alle vongole is a little pricey but the pasta perfectly al dente.
Spaghettini alle vongole is a little pricey but the pasta perfectly al dente. Photo: Chloe Dann

The spaghettini alle vongole ($35) is packed with all the wine-soaked oceanic magic you'd hope for, the pasta perfectly al dente. Does the dish seem a little pricey for its simplicity and serving size? Perhaps. I might instead go for the mussel and clam hot pot ($28), which has all the same white-wine-broth magic, along with a side of sourdough bread to sop it up.

If there's one thing I wasn't expecting from Connie's, it was too much restraint, but there are places on the menu where presentation seems to come before flavour.

The best thing about chicken alla cacciatore ($26) is usually the stewy-ness of the endeavour, the tomato and olives and chicken creating magic in their mingling. Here, the chicken is served atop a square of polenta, the sauce served around it. I missed the gloppy magic of the original.

The tirami-sundae is tiramisu with vanilla soft-serve on top.
The tirami-sundae is tiramisu with vanilla soft-serve on top. Photo: Chloe Dann

But, oh, the glory of the very silly tirami-sundae ($16), a mash-up I've not seen before, but wish I had. It's tiramisu with vanilla soft-serve on top, but it becomes more than the sum of its parts, the ice-cream imbuing the dessert with a raucous sense of childhood fun.

The back room has a dance floor between the tables, and the atmosphere is 100 per cent party-time, even early in the evening. Do not come here if you're looking for a quiet night out: this is a place for loud gatherings.

In the summertime, there will be no better place to have a wild night than on the rooftop deck. (This joint serves French 75s, a cocktail made with gin, champagne and lemon juice, by the pitcher for $85. Why has no one ever thought of that before?)

It might be tempting to think of Connie's as what happens when Heartbreaker grows up, but not to worry – there's no growing up happening here. Just a whole lot of joy, a whole lot of sauce, and a cracking good time.

Vibe New Jersey Italian red-sauce joint, circa 1985

Go-to dish Carne pizza 

Drinks Heavy emphasis on cocktails, but with a short, fun wine list, too

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

https://www.connies.melbourne/