La Sala

Italian inspired: La Sala's dining room is a stylish update on a traditional design.
Italian inspired: La Sala's dining room is a stylish update on a traditional design. Photo: Luis Ascui

54-56 Brumbys Road Warrandyte South, Victoria 3134

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Opening hours Wed-Sat, 11.30am-3.30pm; Sun, 11.30am-4.30pm; Wed-Sat, 5.30-11pm
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Colin Swalwell
Seats 120
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9844 4676

A sign on the main drag promises "olive grove, restaurant, distillery, winery". At the bottom of a narrow winding bush road, after a hard left past a procession of pencil pines, I'm in a large carpark, full this Saturday night. The air is scented with woodsmoke and cut grass, and in the distance, there's the tinkle of laughter.

It's the weirdest sensation, as if a wormhole has opened up to a Tuscan villa. It's hard to believe the eight-hectare Olivigna estate is only 31 kilometres from the GPO, harder still to believe how many people are here. What does Warrandyte know about La Sala and why has it been keeping it so quiet?

Italian-born caterer Anna Gallo and her developer husband John Di Pietro have owned Olivigna for 17 years, planting the olive and lemon trees and grapevines that cover the surrounding hillsides and painstakingly recreating an Italian idyll in Warrandyte. The estate houses a function venue, enoteca and paved piazza, where granita carts will roam in summer. The restaurant is the latest stage in their dream. It's been only open seven months but "we can't believe how it's blown up", our waiter confides when I remark on how busy it is.

Grilled scamorza wrapped in lemon leaf on eggplant parmigiana.
Grilled scamorza wrapped in lemon leaf on eggplant parmigiana. Photo: Luis Ascui

The vast dining room is a stylish update on a traditional Italian design, with a barrel ceiling hung with bespoke chandeliers, an imposing Mansfield mudstone fireplace, and chalky walls dotted with large black and white photographs.

And it's chokkas. A bobbing balloon in one corner announces Happy 60th. At a long table, grandparents attempt to lull twin babies to sleep. Elsewhere, a double date is in progress. Ceiling baffles and acoustic foam under the tables help keep the room noise comfortable..  

Chef Colin Swalwell is in charge of the kitchen. He has a solid French pedigree (Yering Station, the Windsor Hotel, Paul Bocuse and Langton's) but in Warrandyte he's taken an Italian vacanza, tapping into estate produce for simple antipasti such as olives and tapenade served with casalinga bread, marinated vegetables, and the best dish of the night, smoky scamorza cheese, green olive and a spark of chilli, bundled in lemon leaves, grilled and plated with eggplant parmigiana.

The Campagnia pizza.
The Campagnia pizza. Photo: Luis Ascui

A pizzaiolo is kept busy creating puffy discs with enough substantial integrity to support a generous weight of toppings. These are the gourmet variety, featuring ingredients like black truffle cream, San Daniele prosciutto and goat's cheese (separately). And they're good. A Campagnia pizza, with chunks of pork and fennel sausage, fior di latte and chicory is chewy, salty and rich in all the right places.

The mains are where things get less rustic and for me, less interesting. Eye fillet, ordered rare, arrives closer to medium, under crossed batons of crumbed asparagus. A square tartlet with a piped filling of Persian feta and chives sits to one side. The duck is served rare, its juices running across the plate, and its skin this night rather rubbery. It keeps company with a rotolo (pasta roll) filled with the braised leg. Over and around the protein are game chips, snow peas, tiny turned beetroots and squares of jelly made from estate shiraz. The function centre formality of the dishes is such a departure from what's gone before that I'm left somewhat perplexed. The course is saved for me by a side order of crunchy, crusty rosemary-scented potatoes, which quickly disappear.

Desserts are simple and traditional: things like ricotta-filled cannoli, bombolone with chocolate or lemon curd, nutella-filled calzone and limoncello. They're likeable and crowd-pleasing but don't break new ground.

But La Sala is such an unexpected find and has so many things in its favour that I can't help but feeling inspired by the Olivigna dream. I picture myself in the piazza in summer, sipping rosé, eating pizza and following it up with a granita. Because if you can't afford to go to Italy, why not let Italy come to you?

The best bit
 The convivial atmosphere.
The worst bit The formal main courses.
Go-to dish Grilled scamorza wrapped in lemon leaf on eggplant parmigiana.