Rosa's Canteen

Slick: Rosa's Canteen's decor is schmick and shiny.
Slick: Rosa's Canteen's decor is schmick and shiny. Photo: Pat Scala

500 Bourke Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000

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Opening hours Mon - Fri 12 Noon – 3:00 PM 5:30 – 9:00 PM, Sat 5:30 – 9:00 PM
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Events, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Long lunch, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Clair Bartell
Seats 55
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9602 5491

For the rock-dwellers in the audience, here are the cheat notes on Rosa Mitchell: she's the five-foot-nothing, Sicilian-born, hairdresser-turned-chef who everyone in Melbourne has wished was their mum since she started cooking pastas and frittatas at Journal Canteen in 2007. 

She jumped around the city after that, taking her brand of unfussy Italian as far as a Williamstown pub, (a period everyone wants to forget) before striking gold in the city with her Punch Lane trattoria, where the decor amounts to colourful chairs jumbled between boxes of Peroni. That brings us to the here and now and Rosa's Canteen, a second outlet for Mitchell's antipasto, pastas and tongue dishes, this time overlooking the Supreme Court, with head chef Braeden Cleave co-helming the kitchen. 

The room isn't what regulars might expect. You're looking out at barristers in billowing gowns through louvre windows, which open and close like electric fish gills. Gun floor bosses Ari Vlassopoulos and David Razmoski circle the floor like worker bees doing a dance. It's schmick and shiny. Tall and airy, with chairs and tables so high that if Mitchell comes out to say hello to a group, it can take them a minute to notice.

King of the pastas: Spaghetti with prawns, zucchini and pistachio.
King of the pastas: Spaghetti with prawns, zucchini and pistachio. Photo: Josh Robenstone

But the principles of Rosa's Kitchen live here. The main difference is a menu with snack flexibility, geared to the wig-rich legal district, which mostly deals in lunch and drinks.

There's always a special, and fritters change daily (it's golden, cheesy cauliflower discs on our visit), but it's nice to know you can grow reliably attached to the chicken livers – finely chopped and fried with onion, bay leaf and marsala, stacked on oiled croutons like meaty mushroom duxelles. Or the beef carpaccio, the crimson slices of meat at room temp, countered by capers, curls of parmesan, silverbeet leaves, and a creamy dressing with horseradish heat.

If this is your first rodeo with Mitchell's work, it's important to remember that this is food made famous for its total lack of faff and fuss. There are no bread plates (bread's a sauce tool, not a side), and no espresso machine either, just a stovetop pot. For maximum fun, keep those expectations set to "accessible Italian" (albeit served with some thoroughbred Italian plonk, grown on home turf and abroad). 

The cannoli is worth reserving.
The cannoli is worth reserving. Photo: Pat Scala

Order tactically. That might mean reserving cannoli before you start. It's a non-negotiable and they sometimes run out. You definitely need pasta in the mix too – Cleave did time at Rosetta and it might be this that renders the fettuccine alkaline-noodle-springy, like Neil Perry's pasta.  Build the rest of your meal around those two certainties. 

The caprese salad is solid with big chunks of tomato and mozzarella draped in sheets of salty parma ham so soft you could leave a fingerprint. The only drawback, which applies to most small plates, is that it's not so small, rather built for two or more. Call us jerks, but sometimes we'd rather talk to a glass of wine than bring along friends just to share. 

You can always slide in for a one-plate wonder like that fettucine, stained golden with garlicky butter and woven with shreds of fresh zucchini, pistachios, and big chunks of prawn. It's bright, crunchy and king of the pastas, closely chased by the penne rolling with anchovies, parsley and tomato. 

The eggplant parmigiana is less memorable. It's a little like a cheesy vege stack. Our spaghetti carbonara needs a little more pepper and a little less time in the pan too, although it is authentic, made with smoky specks of guanciale, whole eggs, pasta water and fistfuls of parmesan and pecorino cheese. 

What you would race back for, anytime, any day, are the soft cubes of ox tongue, deep-fried crisp and zinged with a salsa verde. Forget your fear of offal. It tastes like corned beef, has the richness of wagyu and the light sponginess of mortadella, all bedded on a citrusy salad of witlof and herbs. 

You'd do the same for a slice of caramelly custard tart with fruit from Mitchell's farm and pastry that crumbles to butter dust. People have been known to reserve it or a tiny gilded cup of grainy coffee, or some blood orange Amaro that's everything Cointreau could be if it became a distinguished and embittered adult. 

If the Canteen shell is sharp and hard, the heart is not. It's still Mitchell in a nutshell: tiny but mighty and ace.

THE LOWDOWN
Pro tip
  Pre-book dessert, just in case
Status Lunches are still manic, but mostly smooth
Go-to dish Zucchini and prawn fettuccine with pistachios, $25

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 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best