445 Little Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon 9am-5pm; Tue-Fri 9am-late|
|Features||Family friendly, Licensed, Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Joseph Vargetto, Sascha Randle|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Drinks||Italian beers and wines with a couple of smart locals|
|Phone||03 9670 5347|
Praise be to the gods of Straight Edge Dining, the trend for rebooted classics is still alive and strong. For proof that hushed tones, humility and classic sauce work still have currency, look to newcomer Philippe's – the linen-clad French bistro by industry legend Philippe Mouchel. Just up the road in Bank Place, Philippa Sibley has revived Syracuse with straight down the line Mediterranean. And now here's Massi, a sibling to Kew's Mister Bianco, that could as well have been here for 20 years rather than the three months it has been.
Massi is set in what used to be all-day-Italian Benito's Cafe and on the surface, not too much has changed. Today you're dining between Fornasetti images and a golden, honeycomb-shaped light structure, but leather booths still run along one wall and stools line that classic marble bar on the other. There's less clutter, but only just. A meat slicer, salumi and cannoli still count as bar top decoration. Behind, elevated fridges form a classic '90s centrepiece along with bottles of Aperol and some Cinzano that should be in the fridge.
The biggest change is the output at the hands of chefs Joseph Vargetto and co-pilot Sascha Randle, last seen at Epocha. From the hand-cranked red racer slicer comes salumi jumping borders between Italy and Spain, so a board might heave with fluffy ruffles of mortadella and the chewier, slightly gamey longaniza oscura (a Spanish pork sausage stained with squid ink), sweet-sharp pickled veg (great pickle work is a recurring theme here), and a baggie of still-warm focaccia.
This is multi-regional, lightly twisted Italian, with your classic stuffed-and-crumbed olives billed next to the likes of white anchovies, riding high on ultra fine Sardinian crispbreads piped with ricotta – all sweet cream and crunch.
Seafood is a common theme and a good one. One day it's cod mousse with fresh vegetable dippers. Next it's a festival of luxe and rich in a whole side of hot-smoked salmon, served chilled. Break apart the mellow and gelatinous meat to run through celeriac remoulade, and freshen with soft, sweet fennel.
For everyone failing to get into Tipo, squid ink spaghettini is more than a plan B, it's a tangle of crisp crumb-flecked pasta with striations of juicy crab, fresh chilli and sweet clams captured in a bright, briny seafood broth. In other seafood excellence, tortellini filled with a garlicky snapper farce are like Italian-flavoured dumplings. The sweetness of a buttery, almost salad dressing-y sofrito sauce is odd, but not unpleasant.
Elsewhere Vargetto calmly takes a classic and absolutely nails it straight to the wall. Braised beef cheeks are glossy rounds glistening in a red wine jus of vegemite-y depths that's also fragrant with thyme. Cheesy spatzle – those free-form noodle nubbins – is everything you always hope mac and cheese will be, but isn't.
Massi is certainly winning the hearts and minds of the boys' club crowd you expect in Little Collins. Suffice to say, ladies, you won't have to queue for the loos. No-one's complaining about the tight list of Italian wines including a free-flowing sangiovese and pinot grigio for carafes, nor the all-Italian beer list starring Peroni on tap. But flat nights beg the question whether a wailing Sam Smith soundtrack, bright fliers on tables and OK-but-not-great aperitivo (our spritz is a giant glass of Aperol with soft orange garnish and our glass of prosecco lacks fizz) is deterring the night owls Massi needs to feel abuzz.
Here's to small fixes for big gains. The city can never have too many panna cottas that kamikaze on the command of a sponge finger spoon.
Kew's favourite Italian branches out in the big smoke
Pro Tip: Come at lunch to feel the room abuzz
Go-to Dish: the beef cheeks with cheesy spatzle ($37)