122 Johnston Street Fitzroy, Victoria 3065
|Opening hours||Tue-Wed 5.30pm-10.30pm; Thu-Sun noon-10.30pm|
|Features||Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9415 6876|
So the Commoner is gone. But before you grieve too deeply for Fitzroy's long-time celebrator of whole beasts and local produce; the place where Jocelyn Corrigan and long-time collaborator Matthew Donnelly were pushing feed-me menus and cooking in wood-fired ovens before it was cool, all in a warren of nooks dressed with rabbit traps and wildflowers (vale, you majestic friend), know they're not totally gone.
Corrigan, typical to form, hasn't so much left as passed the baton to two Sicilian dudes, chef Matt Tine and Matty Miceli whose attitude she dug. Their pitch? To turn it into a family-style trattoria using family recipes unchanged from the '50s. In sweeter news still, Corrigan is their supplier of herbs and foraged 'shrooms.
Welcome to what you might consider the Waiters' Restaurant with newer tables, or Pellegrini's in the 'burbs. If you're not privileged enough to be Italian, nor smart enough to have formed tight alliances, this is your new go-to for getting at the kitchen table. It's a non-stop Sicilian charm party where the service is all big smiles and a little laissez-faire, the plating is sometimes hilariously rustic, and the servings imply you're too thin.
It all starts with a bowl of crisp polenta fingers and Aperol spritz while you peruse a menu only fools would attack with a posse of less than four.
When they talk an old-school game here, they mean it. It's the endearing dagginess rather than dazzling theatrics that will win you over. Behold a blistered pork and fennel sausage in all its lumpy, unlovely glory. It's served on a little metal tray with cauliflower puree, and toasty florets too fancy for nonna, yet not quite modern, but entirely right with the coarse and only gently processed chorizo-like banger.
Tine did 11 years under Italian don Guy Grossi, of Florentino fame. A fact you will at no point consider, eating a plate of intentionally rustic spaghetti with sharply vinegared, coarsely cut iceberg salad.
On a weeknight, tell us that crisp, crumbed sardines; spaghetti with cured tuna (admittedly a little uni-student-staple with its fishy tomato liquor and large hunks of well cooked fish); and their multilayered eggplant melanzane cooked to a crimson fudgy slab aren't friends you want to make.
The warren has had a pastel paint job. It now sports a peachy glow from the window's neon lights, illuminating slightly kitschy framed floral prints. Acoustics, with all the bareback tables, allow things to get rowdy. Music might be the Carpenters' Rainy days and Mondays but nobody's perfect.
It's almost a disappointment that drinks aren't just red, white or limoncello in a tumbler. It's a tidy little list of Piedemonte nebbiolos, or Australian fianos. Sardinia's fruity Ichnusa lager stands in for Peroni on the sessionable beer front, and Coldstream cider reps for the local team. The verjuice, mint and soda aperitif for non-drinkers is a considered move. A Melbourne Bitter long neck for $18? C'mon guys that's an Uber all the way to the deepest Coburg and enough change to buy a longie when you get there.
So prices aren't overall ridiculous, but it's not as cheap as you might expect either. And perhaps a few less plates in the air would lend a tightness to the menu. It's fearsomely long, and means things like our otherwise rib-sticking risoni dish of the rice-shaped pasta, pine mushrooms and ricotta salata shows up without the chicken skin crackling key to tying it together.
That said, the only thing the menu needs is Tine's untweaked family recipe for a wood-fired baby chicken, stuffed with a buttery rice, breadcrumbs, lemon and thyme that cooks with the juices like a risotto a la hen.
You know the family ties are serious when actual family is here (having being warned, we're told, to keep the noise down and pants fastened). Follow their lead with that crumbly rum baba sponge and get an extra shot of spiced rum to mix with its orange juice.
Flaky-shelled cannoli cigars are the go, as is a little dark chocolate slice with a jammy layer from those big sweet lemons between biscuit and ganache.
This could all read as hipster retro. Thankfully, it just feels nice.
Pro tip: The feed-me option lives on: the day's best dishes, no menu panic.
Go-to dish: Rice-stuffed chicken – risotto in a bird!
Like this? When was the last time you had spaghetti a la Laminex at the Waiters' Restaurant? Too long. 20 Meyers Place, Melbourne