Red sauce runs in Melbourne's blood. Our Italian migrant population is responsible for much of what has shaped us as a food city. Coffee? We had the first espresso machines outside Europe, and our small bars only exist because our Italian forebears fought for liquor licences so they could have wine with dinner at their small cafes. We have champion Sicilian, Calabrian and Sardinian restaurants, and better yet, the best stuff doesn't always come with a three-figure price tag. Here it is: the best pasta and focaccia this city can throw your way.
Best fine-dining Italian
This is ristorante territory, the top tier of Italian eateries where the service is slick, the linens are starched and the pasta is pure silk.
Lygon Street may be the cannonball run of red sauce joints, but Bourke Street is the nexus for top-gear Italian. You come to Bottega to observe the bustle of Bourke from the city's comfiest ribbed banquettes, also for some of the best pre-theatre deals on the block (three courses for $55 is a bargain when the service, linens and twinkling glassware are all part of the deal). It might be discs of wagyu carpaccio dolloped with black garlic aioli and pickled button mushrooms, or perhaps some slow-cooked salmon, flavoured with mint and maple syrup.
74 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9654 2252
Cafe Di Stasio
Entering Cafe Di Stasio necessitates an encounter of sorts with the larger-than-life owner, Ronnie Di Stasio – the doorknobs are oversized casts of his expressive hands. The restaurant is a Melbourne institution, a slick, elegant, darkened den where modern art meets old-school service. The menu follows a faithful formula: a short selection of well-executed Italian dishes, supplemented by regular specials such as house-made pasta with crab and chilli, and maybe some roasted suckling pig, or duckling. It's an experience above all else, and like no other.
31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 9525 3999
Cecconi's Flinders Lane
Everything you want from a large sophisticated city restaurant is right here: atmosphere, admirable service, flattering lighting and carpets that suck noise. And did we mention the bar that's open from breakfast onwards? This is Italian, but leans towards innovative modern. That could look like beetroot-cured kingfish with tiny creamy balls of fried goat's cheese and a pomegranate vinaigrette, or confit duck and porcini raviolo, soothed by a mushroom brodo, and brightened by a quail egg.
61 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 8663 0500
Downstairs is tight and bustling; upstairs is quieter, but over both levels there's the gleam of light on glasses and deft service. The menu always reflects seasonal availability, so braised goat with soft polenta might not always be on, but dishes always turn traditional Italian modern. Yellowfin tuna is served crudo, its softness balanced by pistachios, mint and ruby grapefruit segments. Opened in 1997, the Kew restaurant is still punching with the energy of a place in its early prime.
109 Cotham Road, Kew, 9817 6468
There's duck fat in the focaccia, wild boar tumbled through tagliatelle, and venison in the pan. That's all you need to know about this corner pub, long favoured by Italophiles, celebrities and celebrity chefs. Olives and house-baked breads arrive at linen-dressed tables in the chocolate-hued dining room, strung with bauble lights by Burnley neighbour Mark Douglass. If it's on, stick your fork in golden, buckwheat polenta-crusted sardines with fresh beans and minted, salted ricotta, or tender char-grilled calamari speckled with parsley and capers.
333 Burnley Street, Richmond, 9429 2530
Grossi Florentino's gravitas crosses generations. That's thanks partly to its history, dating back to the '30s, and partly to the Grossi family (16 years at the helm). Beneath Napier Waller murals of 16th-century Florentine scenes, linen-dressed tables are softly lit and discreetly and intuitively attended to. You even get a purpose-built stool on which to rest your handbag. A vivid green nettle risotto entree is creamy, with lemony pick-ups and an almost gelatinous veil of finely chopped prawn across the surface. It might be followed by light, steamed sweet-fleshed toothfish with peas and warrigal greens. But it's the traditions (priming wine glasses at the table) and the from-another-time formality that make Florentino's an enduring rarefied event.
80 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9662 1811
Countless romances and finances have been negotiated over classic flash-fried calamari and Moreton Bay bug spaghetti at this elegant Italian mainstay, currently powering through its third decade. It's all in the service, and a drinks list that's up-to-the-minute with what's happening on the wine frontier. The food is classic but far from old hat. It could as easily be scallops with corn puree and flying fish roe or an 18-hour veal cheek, which dissolves on touch.
168-170 Little Collins Street, 9654 6778
Neil Perry made it his mission to prove fine dining doomsayers wrong with this casino-based behemoth of marble and $35 pastas. And he succeeded. This room is all excess, in a way that we love. Red velvet cushions and chandeliers form the backdrop to plates of freshly made ricotta, served still wobbling, and a wine list that could show you the time of your life if you have a wallet fat enough. It ain't cheap, and the bejewelled and bouffanted clientele reflect that, but if you have the cash to spare, you won't regret throwing it at a wood-fired pigeon and summer polenta.
Crown Complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Melbourne, 8648 1999
Scopri is old-fashioned in all the best ways: noise is muted even when the room's bustling; lighting flatters but you can still read the menu; and well-drilled waiters, under the direction of co-owners Anthony Scutella and Alison Foley, never call you 'guys'. Chef Andy Logue's menu cherry-picks intriguing regional Italian specialties like silky pappardelle in a ragu of partridge and nebbiolo, bookended by cuttlefish stuffed with lemony bread crumbs and wine-braised baby goat.
191 Nicholson Street, Carlton, 9347 8252
Town Hall Hotel
You're looking at whip-smart Italian served in what is every inch a classic boozer. Owner-chef Harry Lilai might greet you in the front bar himself, and advise on the craft beers before disappearing to the kitchen to plate up a deep-fried egg, yolk still runny, with blanched asparagus. Or perhaps a special of char-grilled ox tongue, scattered with golden beets and daubs of peppery herb dressing chased by a grown-up take on the pine-lime Splice. It's sharp and smart stuff, served in a Scandi-slick dining room with attentive service.
166 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 9416 5055
Best casual Italian
We're talking a step up from hoofing pizza and gelati on the run here. Still, Italian is arguably at its best where service is easy-yet-sharp, kids are welcome in their PJs, and pastas that could heal the world rule.
Chianti seems like the bistro that 1985 forgot, but the young team who took over the neon-lit venue in 2014 have embraced the retro mood, which now seems fondly ironic rather than naff. Chef and part-owner Domenic Stanton (ex Grossi Florentino, MoVida) is clearly hooked on classics. The tightly scripted menu (around five antipasti, entrees, mains and sides) might offer agro dolce rabbit with broad beans and pancetta in spring, or partner the first pine mushrooms of autumn with soft ricotta and sage, to brilliant effect. Gently remixed desserts such as almond milk panna cotta keep the good times rolling.
376 Queens Parade, Fitzroy North, 9481 4628
In four years, this city gem has garnered such loyalty among the Paris-end business crowd that trying to get a booking for Friday lunch is almost futile. Head chef Marco Lori cooks like a nonna and does so with pride. Cauliflower fritti are plump, lightly battered and fried crisp and come with truly garlicky aioli. Pizze form a thin, crisp and chewy stage for paper-thin prosciutto and fine Italian cheeses. It's worth visiting just for the bombolini: four doughnuts come drizzled with choc-hazelnut sauce and a side of icy yoghurt.
41 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 9639 0333
Such is people's devotion to owner-chef Joe Vargetto's wine-braised beef cheek with creamed spatzle and pickled radicchio that when he attempted to remove it from the menu there was uproar. Mister Bianco is his neighbourhood restaurant in Kew, and it defines the term – it's equally good for big family birthday bashes as zero-occasion Tuesday nights. There are rooms upstairs and down, and the menu is built for flexibility uniting the finer stuff (seared tuna rounds sandwiching avocado mousse) and the easy classics (hand-cut pasta tangling up shellfish). Another fixture is the pavlova with lime curd and prosecco jelly.
285 High Street, Kew, 9853 6929
It's the youngest and most free-wheeling arm of the Grossi empire. A relaxed salumi bar at heart, you're eating house-made sheets of prosciutto and salami sat on Collins Street, armed with a litre of wine. Just here to drink? Floor boss Carlo Grossi won't judge. He's more likely to encourage you with an Aperol spritz, then equip you with a bevy of snacks: simple pizzas and cicchetti like tender calamari tangled with fried capers and chickpeas and dense polpette bathed in a rich tomato sugo and smoky scamorza.
76 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9639 1927
Osteria La Passione
Paddock to plate? Plenty talk the talk but few urban restaurateurs live it as literally as Carmine Costantini. Vegetables come from his farm; beef from his own Chianina cattle. You'll find yourself sitting on a church pew-turned-banquette at the chef's Richmond osteria, eating it all as part of a three-, six- or nine-course menu that changes with his whims and the will of the garden gods. It might be a butterflied sardine with a gratin crust and a salty sprinkle of bottarga (salt-cured tuna belly). Or his own salumi – silky lardo, petals of coppa and chunky boar salami coupled with crisp fried pasta pillows.
486 Bridge Road, Richmond, 9428 2558
Pinotta does laid-back Italian damn well. There's an ancient table in the dining room where they're cutting bread; people eating pasta alone at the bar and a backdrop of raw bricks and classic hits. Chef James Wilkinson's pasta is phenomenal too. Pappardelle is all slip and bite, or it may be light-as-clouds ricotta gnocchi in a well-balanced gorgonzola sauce. Raw slices of yellowfin tuna are draped over bundles of matchstick potato crisps licked with lemon aioli – it's a textural party.
32 Best Street, Fitzroy North, 9481 3393
Rosa's Kitchen and Rosa's Canteen
Rosa Mitchell is the five-foot-nothing Sicilian-born chef everyone in Melbourne wishes was their mum. Her food is and always has been defined by its lack of fuss and respect for the ingredients she schleps in from her farm. And you can now get at her antipasti, pastas and poached tongue dishes in two locations – Rosa's Kitchen, the tiny trattoria on Punch Lane where the decor amounts to colourful chairs jumbled between boxes of Peroni, or at Rosa's Canteen, the schmick new space next to Paco's Tacos. In either place the same rules apply: start with fritters, order a pasta (maybe ravioli of salt cod, dressed with a light clean sauce of tomato, capers and olives), and always get the silken ricotta-filled cannoli. Both places are Mitchell in a nutshell: tiny, mighty and ace.
Rosa's Kitchen, 22 Punch Lane, 9662 2883; Rosa's Canteen, Rear 500 Bourke Street, 9602 5491
The team at this North Melbourne hero not only know how to cook, they know how to eat. Chef Mitch Bodycote's perfect silky linguine with crab, garlic and crisp breadcrumbs is one thing. Waiters ensuring that entrees built for four might get an extra ricotta-stuffed zucchini flower so bigger parties don't have to share is another. It's the little things that make it: fluency in wine, on-point desserts, and enough digestifs to punch a hole through any carb fugue. It's not a bad idea to head straight for the baked swordfish, served in an intensely savoury tomato broth, but the specials, made with whatever Bodycote has scored from the nearby markets, are always where the action is.
12 Errol Street, Melbourne, 9329 2882
This tiny pasta bar on Little Bourke Street serves as a potent reminder that eating spaghetti – the good stuff, crafted by talented chefs with their focus honed tight – is still one of the best experiences this city can offer. Pity the carb-hater who will never know what it is to break into Alberto Fava and Andreas Papadakis' perfectly formed tortellini, shiny with browned butter and capturing its parmesan, sage and asparagus heart. Risotto blazes bright with nettles, and offal becomes a meat of the people as ruffles of poached, shaved and grilled ox tongue. Luke Skidmore ties it all together with good chat and exciting wines. Heads down, thumbs up.
361 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9942 3946
This Calabrian menu is a feast of antipasti – luscious, shiny dishes displayed on a countertop near the open kitchen. You might try simple almond-stuffed green olives, caciocavallo (similar to haloumi) fried golden and pimped with pickled eggplant, or Calabrian broad bean dip, served warm, with nubs of prawn on top. There's a broad range of restrained pizzas on offer, plus a handful of seasonal pastas and mains – perhaps a slick and simple chilli tagliatelle. Desserts lean on interesting gelati and seasonal fruits, and the service never misses a beat.
517 Malvern Road, Toorak, 9826 8815