50 Grattan St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Sun-Thu 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11am-11pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9349 2167|
Facebook debates would have you believe otherwise, but things are rarely all good or bad, yin or yang, black and blue or gold and white. The truth often sits somewhere in the middle. It is possible, though, to hit both extremes. Something the Sicilian pizzaiolo and proprietor of Mr Pietro, Carlton's new trattoria, knows.
In 1998, Pietro Barbagallo flipped the switch on what it even meant to eat pizza. With I Carusi (then I Carusi St Kilda) he had serious eaters travelling to queue for wax-papered tables, speakers blasting drum and bass, and a thin, crisp Sicilian-style pie topped with real mozzarella.
That sounds totally normal now, but this was long before we elevated burgers and the likes to the Big Kids' Table. When he sold, and opened Barbagallo Trattoria in the city, the food was the same, but the trappings were fine, and city crowds were spoilt for choice. The stakes were as high as the rents. The trattoria closed in 2011. Barbagallo disappeared for a time.
But then came his humble comeback, Kaprica, a little hole-in-the-wall in Carlton. It was a return to form in a tiny garage full of personality, with heaps of tat and good pizza. Here Barbagallo slaved away solo in the kitchen for the first six months, almost like he was doing penance. If you, like me, have sent a million hopeful daters there, or slunk to the park with the leek and gorgonzola pizza No.26, or had your mind blown by gnocchi bordering on tiny souffles, you're going to have high hopes for Mr Pietro.
And in good news, no one's going to struggle loving the space. Mr Pietro is set in one of those Carlton terraces on Grattan Street that really lets the suburb show off its impeccable bone structure.
On one side, an open room sports a stunning stained glass ceiling that acts like a hypnotic porthole, sucking passers-by in off the street. The looks are as good inside: wafty curtains, a marble countertop laden with fruit and beautiful wooden panel work.
If you do decide to stop, drop and drink, they have all you need in the way of fresh Italian refreshment: Peronis, Aperol spritz; americanos, plus a bracket of Aussie wines. So far, so bucolic Italian vision.
It is, however, a vision that comes replete with a very specific kind of European service – not the bubbly type. More whimsical and indifferent. I get water straight away on our second visit, but it takes two reminders, halfway through dinner on the first, to get hydrated. Were we meant to receive the bread other tables seemed to? I'll never know.
I do know we want some for the prawns – a successful import from Kaprica – perfectly cooked in oil flavoured with fistfuls of fresh chilli, parsley and crisp-yet-still-sweet sliced garlic. Other successful Kaprica-ish immigrants include the pizza. The salami version on its crisp base is tanned and crisp in the right spots, and the pomodoro (tomato) sauce perfectly striking the sweet-acid balance.
In fact, it's a good idea to get anything that comes in that pomodoro: the fillet of salted cod, for example, is an unusual specialty that sees the intensely funky fish revivified, desalinated and evened out with the sweetness of the sauce and the salt of dried olives.
The best of the pastas, too, is the gnocchi, denser than Kaprica's can-barely-hold-it-together brand, but just as smashable drowned in that red sauce and huge stretchy patches of mozzarella, almost like Korea's cheesy rice cake dish tteokbokki.
I'd hit the juicy, well-seasoned pork meatballs paired with twists of casarecce again too, the fat turning the sauce intensely rich and almost buttery.
Other hits: the electrically acidic octopus salad that sees the sliced tentacles buried in a wild thicket of parsley, basil, and finely sliced celery. It's as bracing as getting whipped in the snow post a sauna.
On the flip side, the broccoli pizza is fine, but the garlic, chilli and cheese fail to integrate. The clam spaghetti, the pappardelle that's clinging together under a metallic duck ragu, and an overly blond veal cotoletta are all lacking seasoning.
I bite the lemon tart and a grain of rice, presumably from blind-baking the pastry, crunches hard. The tiramisu is OK. The waitress appearing with all these things stares at the still-full table looking as annoyed as we are that there's nowhere to put them.
How do you place all these highs and lows on one spectrum? I guess by saying Mr Pietro is going to hit you with both. It can be a good restaurant if you come prepared to apply a yum-cha-on-a-Saturday assertiveness to service. And order specifically– very specifically. But if Mr Pietro wishes to swing it all to the sweet end of the spectrum, he needs to balance scales for himself.
Pro Tip: Prepare to assert yourself to get the service you need.
Go-to Dish: Salami pizza $19; gnocchi pomodoro $22.