43 Hardware Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-3pm; Wed-Sat 5pm-late.|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Bar, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9670 1110|
Do you want to hear about another new Italian, Melbourne? No? I hear you. But you'd be a fool to miss this one and you probably almost did.
That's the trouble with food frenzies. A great idea gets replicated so many times – and sometimes not well – that real deal winners might emerge and all but drown in the noise.
Casual Italian is hardly a new "concept" to Melbourne, but the sheer volume of operators suddenly turning their attention to pizza and pasta is. There's been a red sauce tsunami. A spaghetti siege. So much so, I almost didn't see the Hardware Club for all the average calabrese.
Co-owners Andrea Ceriani (+39 Pizzeria) and his childhood friend and chef Nicola Dusi (ex. D.O.C. Pizzeria, Baby Pizza) have an uphill battle on their hands to get Melbourne's attention. For starters, they've commandeered what used to be one this street's oldest pizza joints, Ciao Pizza Napoli on Hardware Lane.
This strip is Melbourne's cannonball run, lined with professional spruikers who expertly funnel tourists into their respective mega restaurants should they happen to stand still too long.
Hardware Club, ready and waiting with its wicker chairs on the pavement and stairway leading up, is hustler-free. It's quiet on an otherwise bustling Wednesday night. It shouldn't be. And I doubt it will be for long.
By day it's a simpler carte, perhaps so as not to scare the crowd of regulars from its Ciao days. By night, they ratchet up a gear with some of the most inventive yet sense-making and sharply executed Melbourne-Italian dishes of this year.
Behold an anchovy menu – not just one tin, but meaty Yurrita gold from Cantabria and top-shelf Don Bocarte beasts from the Bay of Biscay.
You might read whipped cod on the menu and picture the many cod roe dips of 2019, but this is mantecato, a substantial spread of salted cod flesh that has been desalinated and sweetened in milk, served here with crunchy, salty pizza dough, tangy olives and tomatoes that have been melted to rich sweetness in oil.
The sounds-familiar-but-isn't genius continues with a plate of perfectly golden roasted brussels sprouts subbing for veal on a bed of tonnato sauce. It's a who-knew home run, between the brassicas and delicately tensioned caper-speckled tuna mayonnaise.
Or there's a very 2019 ode to Southern Italy's king of snacks. Mozzarella in carrozza, typically a crumbed, deep-fried mozzarella sandwich, here contains bonus leeks in the midsection and a hail of salty parmesan and pepper for a cacio e pepe twist.
The space itself is more functional than glam – a boxy room with pale banquettes, cream tones, tiles and ash woods and a domed pizza oven pulling focus. But the front has a light-flooded bar and those second floor window seats offer an excellent perving station.
It's a pretty Melbourne-meets-Italy feeling, staring at the six o'clock swill in the laneway, drinking Fairbank rosé from an effective single-page list of Australian and Italian winemakers (if you want something more energetic like a skinsy Friulano #7, ask what's open behind the bar), armed with a plate of paccheri.
Here those outlandishly wide pasta toobs strike an unlikely-sounding balance between incredibly tender octopus, a mildly fiery tomato liquor with a mild milky smoked mozzarella note and a pancetta-flecked pangrattato for crunch.
As far as winning friends and influencing new diners goes, the giving, snowball-sized ricotta dumplings bolstered by a minty broad bean and asparagus medley will go a long way.
The chicken neck sausage, presented with its own crisped head on the side, is going to terrify some. But don't let fear get in the way of ordering the herb-rich, delicately textured, crisp-skinned meat, all the better with its sweet mustardy pickles and a house-made Tabasco that hums rather than hurts.
And there's the rub of it. Showstoppers like that cockscomb, and class act finishers like a silky limoncello-heavy mousse under a shortbread crumb might get your interest piqued, but it's the technical skill at play that will bring you back. This team is doing things the long way, and that's what it takes to make it for the long haul.
Vegetarian A fair selection in the mid-range. Ricotta dumplings are a winner.
Drinks An Australian-Italian lead list with braver things on pour each night.
Cost Small plates $7-$18; medium $5-$28; large $28-$38.
Pro Tip: The bolder menu is on at night.
Go-to Dish: Chicken neck sausage with pickles and club tabasco ($28).