Melbourne will never hit a pasta drought. This month alone, two new heavy-hitting Italians have come swaggering onto the scene, marble bars buffed. Agostino Wine Bar from the King and Godfree team has finally arrived and the crab and prawn spaghettini was worth the wait. Lagotto brings all-day Italian dining and custard-filled doughnuts to Fitzroy North under the stewardship of the team behind Congress wine bar. But the well of greats is deep, and the winter is long. Spend it sated and sedated at our old and new favourites.
Bar Carolina in South Yarra. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Sleek and slim as its South Yarra clientele, Carolina occupies a narrow corner site just a minute's totter in Ferragamo heels from another neighbourhood clubhouse, the long-established France-Soir. Don't want your boyfriend, banker or babysitter to spy you lunching on lightly grilled zucchini with avocado and almonds? Head for the darkly glamorous two-tops opposite the charcoal-coloured bar. Yet you don't need to be a regular to be greeted with genuine brio, to enjoy the casual polish of a waiter silver-serving rich pork rotolo at the table or the availability of both quality tap wines and top-shelf barolo.
Go-to dish: Pan-roasted duck breast begs for that barolo.
44 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9820 9774, barcarolina.com.au
Capitano's cheese pizza with optional mortadella. Photo: Joe Armao
This is a good times Yank-Italian diner slinging pizza, pasta and meatballs, but as imagined by some of the top food and drink minds in the business. What that means for you, diner, is clam spaghetti with serious depth, excellent blistery pizzas topped with top-shelf smallgoods and vegetables (broad bean leaves and garlicky cream, perhaps) and a premium bone-in veal parma, sourced from boutique butcher Meatsmith, drowning in lobes of fresh mozzarella and a clean napoli sauce. Take it with an olive oil martini or the juicy barbera made just for them.
Go-to dish: Get the base cheese pie and load with pickled mortadella, and whatever you like from there.
421 Rathdowne Street, Carlton, 03 9134 8555, capitano.com.au
Caterina's is in a Queen Street basement. Photo: Simon Schluter
The loyalty runs deep here at this 23-year-old lunch-only Italian run by Caterina Borsato. And it's not hard to see why. The all-woman, mostly Italian team commands the room with so much confidence it's little wonder that Melbourne's power players come here to relax. Rusted-on diners order by saying "you know what I like". First time? Don't panic. Rattling off the daily specials at speed is this restaurant's party trick. You pretty much can't lose, whether it's an expertly bronzed pork chop or rabbit loin rolled in hazelnut. To drink, there's mortgage-your-warehouse barolo alongside fun stuff from By Farr.
Go-to dish: Vitello tonnato, stuff of legend, and cross your fingers for a nip of Borsato's nonna's grappa.
Basement, 221 Queen Street, 03 9670 8488, caterinas.com.au
Di Stasio in the city. Photo: Eddie Jim
The sequel to Ronnie Di Stasio's spaghetti-slinging, barolo-pouring St Kilda landmark has landed, and true to the nature of its art-loving provocateur owner, it's going to push buttons you didn't know you had. The raging red of its puffy chairs and rosary necklaces on smocked waitresses, plus the constant motion of video artworks heat the blood so you suddenly consider dropping crazy money on the biblical wine list. But then comes the soothe: the cool of the marble bar where Di Stasio's classic fluffy, buttery schnitzel sandwich in foil, twirls of lemony crab linguine, plush veal napped in silken tonnato sauce meet new essentials. Sage-wrapped anchovies in spindly batter fight for best bar snack around – ditto rainbow vegetables in a garlicky bagna cauda.
Go-to dish: Those anchovies are potently delicious and gone in a bite.
Grossi Florentino streetscape including the downstairs grill and cellar bar. Photo: Supplied
To cross the landing of Bourke Street's bastion of fine dining is to enter a world of timber panelling, elegant murals, ironed linen and courtly service. More than half of the wines by the glass are $30 and up, and three courses costs $150. But for your money you get many shiny bells and bright whistles: crisp pastry cones of Russian potato salad, or eel tortellini in soul-soothing brodo as appetisers. They set the scene well for entrees such as roast quail, perfectly autumnal with apple, persimmon and fregola warmed with 'nduja. A line of veal and pancetta stuffing threaded through airy gnocchi speaks to the kitchen's inventive streak.
Go-to dish: When the offer of the cheese cart comes, take it.
80 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9662 1811, grossiflorentino.com
Osteria Ilaria (pictured) has many of the qualities appreciated in its sibling Tipo 00. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
Tipo 00's bigger, easier-to-book next door sibling is far less pasta-driven but no less forceful in making its contemporary Australian-Italian voice heard. The vibe and service are a master class in upscale casual. Behind the long, brick-lined wine bar (pouring some truly esoteric global jewels) the chefs are splaying fresh grilled baby octopus across a fiery 'nduja and anchovy sauce, showering pasta specials with truffles (only in season, as per everything) and assembling bouncy pink lamb tartare in pools of pureed Jerusalem artichoke with pickled pumpkin. Of course there's panna cotta, but, of course, it's lemon and basil-flavoured, too.
Go-to dish: The octopus, 'nduja, anchovy dish has ruled from day one.
367 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9642 2287, osteriailaria.com
Mafaldine cacio e pepe at Park Street Pasta and Wine. Photo: Eddie Jim
Card-carrying fettuccine freak? Consenting casarecce obsessive? Does your ideal degustation involve cheese and charcuterie, fish, a bracket of brassicas and dark meats, all either stuffed into or tangled around some pasta? This sweet forest-green-and-white neighbourly terrace (where you can also get a hulking bistecca Florentina, nicely coiffed veg dishes and meatballs flecked with mortadella) is a restaurant you need to dial into your GPS. Why? The pasta, all made here, changes depending on the desired shape. Some include egg, others are just semolina and water; if you're vegan, you'll be fine. Add whip-smart service and pitch-perfect Italian wines for the win.
Go-to dish: Cacio e pepe with whatever shape of pasta they're doing it with that day.
268 Park Street, South Melbourne, 03 9042 8871
A slab of lasagne at Pellegrini's. Photo: Pam Morris
Founded in 1954 and responsible for starting Melbourne's love affair with espresso, the Bourke Street legend has weathered it all, including the tragic death of figurehead Sisto Malaspina last year. Yet it has barely changed in that time, hence Melbourne's intense, enduring love of the booze-free legend. They've had the same butcher for 30 years. The same coffee for 60. As forever, you grab a red stool along the wood and bronze bar or wall ledge and summon the menacing slab of lasagne, rib-sticking minestrone, spaghetti bolognese, and ice-cold citrussy granitas that could have fuelled your grandparents' first date.
Go to dish: A lasagne that will eat you if you get there first.
66 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9662 1885
A very convincing "oxtail" ragu. Photo: Justin McManus
Smith and Daughters
From this neon-filled Brunswick Street bluestone gaff chef Shannon Martinez and business partner Mo Wyse are serving an entirely plant-based Italian menu that's both freakishly convincing and objectively delicious. Martinez' "oxtail" ragu made with compressed mushrooms has such perfect meaty taste and fibrous texture, it's been sent back in panic. Both the polenta served with it, and an eggplant involtini, bathed in rich sugo, filled with basil faux-ricotta and draped in grilled "mozzarella" are freaks of dairy-free nature. Who knew? Martinez did. Head in for winter-warming cacio e pepe (made with kampot pepper and vegan parmesan) and a tofu-based schnitty to be reckoned with.
Go-to dish: The no-meat ragu with rich polenta is pure witchcraft.
175 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9939 3293, smithanddaughters.com
Squid ink pasta with squid and bottarga. Photo: Patrick Scala
Since it opened in 2014, this single-room CBD pasta bar has been rammed with carb fiends fanging for bowls of midnight-black tagliolini entangled with squid, bottarga and a tickle of chilli. For precisely al dente tagliatelle with yielding chunks of braised lamb shoulder playing off bitey green olive. It's not all carbs. Across the broad white marble pass come plates of finely shaved ox tongue brightened with syrupy balsamic vinegar and pink peppercorns, and charry calamari curls with poached mussels and toasty farro grains. Postpone surrendering your seat (getting one is still a battle) by ordering a digestivo from the Italian-leaning drinks list.
Go-to dish: Get that inky tagliolini tangling with tender squid.
361 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9942 3946, tipo00.com.au.