300 Smith St Collingwood, VIC 3066
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu 6-11pm; Fri-Sun noon-4.30pm, 6pm-11pm|
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9419 2202|
Has the Calabrian mafia retired? Hung up their boots, perhaps, and eased into backyard passata days and grandchild minding? I like to think so, or hope so. For the sake of all the restaurateurs opening Italian-ish places as though Melbourne had no history of pizza chains getting a little bit shot at.
What we can say with certainty is that Melbourne is experiencing an Italian restaurant pandemic. Spaghetti is hardly a new trend for Melbourne, but suddenly everything is a pizza joint or a pasta slinger, and chefs of all walks of life are coming out of the woodwork proffering some flimsy credentials – a transformative Roman holiday or New York-Italian experience, exaggerated stints at Italian restaurants. And who can blame them for riding the red-sauce wave? Times are tough. And Melbourne has proved open to pasta parties and willing to pay a premium for thrifty carbs.
This is food for thought at Lupo, chef-restaurateur Scott Pickett's entry into the casual Italian fray. He's by no means the first restaurateur to jump on the bandwagon, but this transformation of what was once the well-regarded Saint Crispin was conceived of and executed so quickly it could make your head spin. In Pickett's defence, that was perhaps out of necessity given the pop-up that was using the space completed only six months of its year-long lease. You could also ask, who cares if this is yet another Italian if it's good?
Knowing Pickett's stable of stars (elegant Estelle, meaty Matilda) you have every right to expect Lupo to deliver. And, there are good things. The refit, though rapid-fire, has some charm, the moody lighting of that high-ceilinged room now falling on olive and rusty tones, a mirrored panel of daily specials and a dramatic feature curtain giving some theatre to the space.
There are barrel-aged negronis and a respectable selection of Old and New World wines. You'll have learnt from other Pickett restaurants that he's a believer in ballsy opening snacks, and Lupo is no exception.
Gnocco fritto, typically fried dough, in this case are more of a gougere with an Italian accent of a parmesan and garlic cream filling. Crisp crostini stacked with spicy 'nduja and an anchovy is a close mimic of the Estelle snack that pairs sardine and spicy rouille. Grilled baby octopus also hits reward receptors thanks to a rich sluicing of aioli and a crisp and citrusy shower of finger lime and pangrattato.
Does it bother you that much of this is an upcycling of Pickett's hits with a little parmesan on top? At least these dishes are based on ideas true to the Pickett group. But beyond, Lupo speaks another lingo and does so with less ease.
Squid-ink mafaldine, those ruffle-edged ribbons, are lit up by a sardine vinaigrette that's low on funk, rich yet sparkly, and crunched up with crisp crumbs and a little bottarga. But the ribbons are soft, while venison ravioli trimmed with gently pickled beets is a fruity, well-flavoured match sunk by the pasta's tough package. The contents of a spanner crab lasagne passes muster, but the shellfish foam enveloping the bowl lacks the ethereal sweetness that stops such sauces reminding you of Boxing Day.
This is perhaps a metaphor for Lupo as a whole. It's all just not quite there, as if the kitchen has assumed that nailing simple Italian is easy. And unfortunately, that's not quite good enough, certainly not two months after opening.
Mains do not redeem. A risotto is nicely loose, smooth and creamy in the Venetian style, but crowned by osso bucco that's given its all to the braise and returned to a firm and fibrous form. It's hard to tell if the chicken, slathered in rocket pesto on a smooth pool of polenta, is texture-neutral because it has been cooked sous-vide, or if it has bored itself to death. By contrast the complication of a marzipan-y cream with sweet meringue and deeply soured rhubarb ends dinner with a squint instead of a sigh.
Even though chefs are plating pastas right before us, it is a kitchen devoid of vim. There is the flicking of iPhones, the polishing of glasses with 1000-yard stares. And I don't blame them. Whose food is this? Who is it for?
I don't think Lupo need worry about a visit from the mob. The greater risk is in shooting itself in the foot.
Vegetarian Modest options: one pasta, two snacks, and sides.
Drinks A reasonable wine list and cocktail collection.
Cost Small plates $8-$18; pastas $33-$35; mains $34-$37.
Pro Tip: Pickett's restaurants Estelle and Matilda give a better vision of the group.
Go-to Dish: 'Nduja and anchovy on toast $8.