313 Drummond Street Carlton, Victoria 3053
|Opening hours||Daily, noon-3.30pm; 6pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, BYO, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9347 5610|
Imagine running a restaurant for more than 30 years, opening every day for lunch and dinner, tallying more than 20,000 sittings and an awful lot of "Would you like to see the wine list?" That is the reality for Richard Maisano, who opened Masani in 1983, when Bob Hawke was prime minister and carpetbag steak (beef stuffed with oysters) was the height of sophistication. Maisano's parents were hoteliers in fancy Italian resorts; they moved to Melbourne in 1971, when Richard was 13. He studied hospitality locally then boned up at Les Roches, a white-glove Swiss hotel school, and returned with the spit, polish and gumption to take on this handsome 1889 Gothic revival edifice.
The two dining rooms are splendid, with soaring ceilings, terracotta-tiled floors and fireplaces as big as a Matthew Guy-approved bedsit. Function spaces upstairs are equally grand. The dining tables are double-clothed, the waiter's pepper grinder is as long as his arm, and the food appears on heavy white crockery. It would be easy to dismiss it all as dreadfully old-fashioned, to Instagram a snide pic of the quenelle of smoked trout mousse, but the welcome is so sincere and the food so flat-out good that the joke would be on the snarky one. The menu, now as then, is classic Italian, featuring handmade pasta, vegetables chosen at the market that morning, a butcher's special for the grill, and a nonchalant whole-beast attitude that means duck livers star on the entree menu and sweetbreads are casually set next to pan-fried veal. The food is at once infinitely careful and cheerily light-hearted: this is stuff to be enjoyed but not experienced as entertainment.
Those duck livers are a triumph, quickly and fiercely sauteed, then doused in a sticky sauce of caramelised onion, Marsala, grapefruit and duck reduction. The livers are superbly pink and creamy; their intensity is leavened by palate-cleansing citrus and crunchy slices of palm heart. It's a giving dish that you just know the chef has eaten a hundred times. Veal scaloppine was on the starting menu all those years ago and back then it also featured Marsala. Today's version has a lighter lemony white wine sauce that owes its spine to a swish of slow-simmered veal stock. The meat - white, milk-fed, tender - is given a retro flour-and-fry treatment then layered with fat portobello mushrooms. There's an easygoing finesse about the dish, which comes with crisp-fried silky sweetbreads and pecorino-laced potato mash. I've had smoother mash but I haven't enjoyed veal so much for a while.
An artichoke special works trans-seasonal September with creativity and aplomb. Globe artichoke hearts are softened in a garlicky braise and served with just-tender Jerusalem artichokes. Sauteed asparagus adds a burst of spring, melted fontina cheese brings the funk, and a simple vegetable dish becomes something special.
The spaghettini with seafood is a specialty and depends absolutely on good ingredients and knife-edge timing. In the 2½ minutes it takes to cook the pasta (made here, every morning), the seafood (scallops, pipis, prawns, mussels, calamari) is sauteed with garlic and a hint of chilli, then the two elements are tossed with pan juices and twirled on to a plate. It's simple, robust and generous and eating it opens a modest, garlicky doorway to transcendence.
While in this state, you may peruse the room. There'll probably be a birthday table exclaiming over towering, wobbling souffles. There's liable to be a bunch of wine buffs, poring over the extensive list with Kara Maisano, Richard's daughter and the sommelier. Maybe they'll even ask her to open the cellar, where dusty bottles of Grange wait patiently to be called to duty. There'll be an anniversary, most likely, spoons tangling over the fresh gelati terrine, and quite possibly a table of elbow-patched uni types too. It will be comfortable, fairly quiet and the pace will be measured. If that doesn't sound like the dining zeitgeist, that's because it isn't. But if it sounds rather pleasant, that's because it is.
Afterwards, if you stand across the road and look back at this venerable establishment, above the windows with their 30th birthday livery, all the way to the top of the building, you'll see four kangaroo-griffins on the parapets. These Aussie-Euro hybrids are a stately metaphor for the restaurant itself, which holds Italy dear while commanding an enduring and deserving place at the heart of Melbourne hospitality.
The best bit Classic food and caring service in a grand setting.
The worst bit Packet nibbles at the bar.
Go-to dish Spaghettini con crostacei, $29.50
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.