857 High St Armadale, VIC 3143
|Opening hours||Wed-Sun 6-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
What happens when two enthusiastic chefs from an Asian and Italian restaurant take over a trattoria? Rina's is probably the answer. The bigger question is what does that mean? Until last year this tiny 26-seater in Armadale was Zia Rina's Cucina. Its tireless figurehead, southern Italian-born Rina D'Alessandro, passed away in December. Gone but not forgotten – her cousin Danny Natoli has taken the reins, with colleague Adrian Li. The pair were head chefs at Windsor's Neptune and Saigon Sally respectively.
Asked whether they have a succinct elevator pitch for what Rina's is now, they don't. If you try to decipher the thrust via their minor decor alterations to the greyscale room, you'll be just as confused. The kitchen's glass cabinet is stocked with cheeses and salumi – so far, so Italy. But then the menu bills XO with your gnocco fritto. In the bathroom is a bird's-eye chilli plant, geraniums and Hokusai's Great Wave crested by a dingo surfing a stingray. A decorative liquor shelf features sake, natural wines, what might be a jar of jam and a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
What you're looking at here are two chefs going a little freestyle with their first place. Is it slick? Not yet. But lest we forget, Ben Shewry's first Attica menu was a hot mess of European and Thai. Most importantly, both chefs can cook and a tight menu of antipasti, a few pastas and two mains means the results are largely sane.
There's some experimenting but mostly they're veering traditional and rustic. Today's focaccia is pumpkin and spring onion, making a slightly sweet sponge onto which you'll schmear their spiced-up take on pappa al pomodoro, a bread-thickened tomato soup.
That same dough hits the deep fryer for gnocco fritto, which emerge like fluffy savoury doughnuts instead of hollow pillows. It's a nice contrast for salami that's daubed with a fine if incongruous, eggplant XO.
Better experimentation looks like brined, grilled ox tongue and enoki mushroom bundles bedded on a traditional capery tuna mayonnaise for a Korean-Italian vitello tonnato that works. Strips of fennel are pleasantly sweet and rich fried in crunchy breadcrumb jackets. But you also can't argue with the straight play of prosciutto and balls of honeydew-like Christmas melon.
All of the above for $26 is a decent deal, as is a keenly priced, very modest drinks list offering a $15 negroni, two sakes (I'm told there's sometimes a miso-infused pasta that works with this), a skinsy Sicilian Ciello Bianco Catarratto that's good for a cacio e pepe, and four each whites and reds. No bottle exceeds $80 and you can do piccolos of most wines for $4 – a smart idea before investing in a tannic montepulciano that's bigger than anything on menu.
Rina's is offering a lot of winter comfort, but there's a refreshingly light touch, too. Cacio e pepe, the dish that ate 2018, is all sharp pecorino and pepper hefted up further by plump witchetty-grub-shaped cavatelli instead of spaghetti. But then orecchiette, those little buttons, come with tender striations of duck and cavolo nero washed in a cinnamon-heavy braising liquor that's more bright than rich.
The same goes for Roman-style lamb over a loose risotto bordering on soup. Unlovely to behold but delicious, the shoulder is braised in a base loaded with white wine vinegar and anchovies that leaves the meat pale, but sweet and flavour-packed.
There's a straightforward simplicity here that's easy to like. Plating is rustic. Service is friendly and mostly efficient. When it's not, the waiter shrugs and indicates an attention-hoarding table nearby. It's hard to be mad when you can see it's true.
Li and Natoli will likely hone focus as time ticks on. When their ship comes in, the sign over the door will change to Rina's Casa del Popolo. They'll open the courtyard and possibly patio for aperitivo. Hopefully they'll be able to fix the draughty corner of the dining room. Until then, it's erratic but undeniably tasty times on the high seas, capped with crisp ricotta cannoli that will do Armadale, and Rina, proud.
Pro Tip: Avoid the draughty corner table, book the eight-seater with family.
Go-to Dish: Lamb abbacchio $32; cavatelli cacio e pepe $22