281 Victoria St Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||03 9938 6061|
"Sicily is the school-room model of Italy for beginners, with every Italian quality and defect magnified, exasperated and brightly coloured," wrote Italian journalist Luigi Barzini in his 1964 book, The Italians. Sounds like the southern reaches of Lygon Street, Carlton, on a Saturday night during grand prix…
But generally Melbourne speaks with a more nuanced Italian accent now that several generations of Italians have settled here; it's not all hand gestures and noise and plates of cream-laced carbonara.
A case in point is Small Axe Kitchen, just open in Brunswick. Chef and co-owner Adam Pruckner has drawn on his mother's Sicilian heritage to develop a daytime cafe menu, but this isn't a "Sicilian" eatery: the decor is cafe cool with an outdoor set of communal tables that are already filling up as the sunny days of spring approach.
The menu follows the cafe brunch format, but with surprising (and tasty) Sicilian twists. So rather than french toast we get toasted brioche with whipped cinnamon ricotta and honey, and the toastie slot is filled by a deep-fried scamorza sandwich with pickled green tomatoes.
Porridge? Not really, but a big plate of soft polenta is garnished with peas, tiny broad beans and nutty snaps of toasted pistachio: tasty and nurturing to scoop up with a spoon.
The menu gets a bit more lunchy with meatballs served with a slow-cooked egg and pecorino dusting on toast; and polenta-crumbed sardines fried to fishy crispness and served on toast with a smoky olive tapenade.
It may be only September, but I am going to call this now: the tastiest dish I have eaten (and am likely to eat) in a cafe in 2016 is Small Axe's breakfast pasta.
This is not a bowl of cold leftover spaghetti napoletana, but a sneaky riff on carbonara: long twists of Sicilian-style macaroni are laced with sauteed peas and mint and lovely slices of almost-crisp guanciale, a pancetta-like thing made from pork jowl. On top wobbles a slow-cooked egg that has been generously dusted with grated pecorino. Once a fork is applied the egg bursts and runs through the pasta, and you have a lovely, umami-carby mess of salty pork, sweet peas, a lift of mint and gooey-cheesy egginess. Really delicious.
"In the island, the Italian propensity for pomp, pageantry and spectacle becomes convulsed, superhuman, almost grotesque in its magnificence, stupendously overloaded with superfluous ornaments," Barzini wrote.
Small Axe doesn't quite go there, but the kitchen does send out one spectacular plate in the form of two big triangles of grilled brioche, just crisp, nesting between a serve of pistachio granita – green, cold and nutty – and a quenelle of creamy, rich espresso mascarpone. Little cubes of intense blood-orange jelly are dotted around, there is a scatter of toasted pistachio and a tooth-cracking shard of toasted almond praline. A single violet and yellow flower rests atop: Instagram me, then eat me.
Pruckner worked at Code Black Coffee, so beans for the espresso brews come from that Brunswick roaster, a nice balance between traditional toasty and third-wave tangy: another example of Melbourne cafe know-how working to update the traditions.
Pro Tip: An Aperol spritz in the sun – is 3pm too early?
Go-to Dish: Breakfast pasta.