29 March, 2010


350 Nicholson St, Fitzroy; (03) 9077 2013

(Note: the pictures in this post are of a notably higher quality than my usual - because I didn't take them, and the person who did has better skills and equipment! Many thanks to JC)

What is a 'true' Italian restaurant? One of Fitzroy's newer additions, L'Angolo, claims it opened in response to Melbourne's need for one. It's a disingenuous term, since in Melbourne we tend to be savvy enough about Italian cuisine to sneer - albeit discreetly - at places that try to cover the whole boot. We embrace restaurants that declare themselves to be all about the toe, heel and, most commonly, the poor little island about to get a kicking.

What is setting L'Angolo apart at the moment is its (hopefully) monthly themed nights, where it zooms in to a particular region of Italy. In March, the region in the spotlight was Sicily, in particular Palermo. For $60, guests feasted on four signature dishes and supped a glass of Sicilian wine. Brilliant value. Notably too, the dishes on offer are not merely a re-ordering of their everyday mains. This shows a commitment to making the event special, though it's also a shame when a stand-out dish isn't one you can go back for later.

First out to the table were the antipasti palermitani. Note that this is one of two platters that came to our table of four. This platter isn't on their regular menu - if it were, this plus a glass of wine (starting at $6.50 for a house red) would make for a wonderful, cheap night out.
Let's start at the front: baby bruschetta with a dollop of caponatina (eggplant cooked with tomatoes and olives); going anti-clockwise, the next items are torta salata di spinaci (probably the least exciting item); at the back nestle panelle, little buns filled with wonderful chickpea fritters; and sfincionello, Sicilian focaccia topped with caramelised onion and tomato - delicious, but a little hefty given there were three courses to come! In the middle are two fine arancinette, as well as some rocket and pecorino. As a group they made for a lovely presentation, and each one highlighted its own distinct Sicilian flavours.

Both the primi piatti and secondo featured swordfish, but in two very different fashions. The primi piatti was a triumph. Spotted from a distance heading to other tables, it looked like a delicious dessert. Instead, up close, it revealed itself as slivers of eggplant elegantly draped over a skein of spaghetti, within which hid morsels of swordfish, delightfully set off by a touch of mint. L'Angolo call the dish a timballetto, which is normally pasta in puff pastry, but their own take on encased noodles was superb.

In the main dish of involtini di spada the swordfish held its own morsels, this time of breadcrumb dotted with raisins and pine nuts. Alongside were some so-so prawns alla palermitana (the flesh was a little gluggy) and a fennel and orange salad, a welcome aid to digestion at this point in the meal.

What was notable about the savoury courses was the lack of red meat. While doubling up on the main flesh (swordfish) at first seemed surprising, it in fact made the four courses far easier to stomach, and made a welcome change to having to leave half a scotch fillet behind by the time you get to the main course.

For dessert it could only be one thing: cannoli, filled with ricotta, a hint of marsala and 'scaglie' (shavings) of chocolate.As with the swordfish in the timballetto and the raisins in the involtini, those little studs of choc were a treasure of taste, ensuring that these richer ingredients didn't overpower the bulkier ones - perhaps therein lies their claim to be purveyors of 'real' Italian food.

24 March, 2010


Trunk: 275 Exhibition St, Melbourne; (03) 9663 7994
Pizzeria Amici: 100 Burgundy St, Heidelberg; (03) 9459 0907

The fig. An intriguing fruit, one with a brief but abundant seasonality, and one hailed as much for its partnerships as an item to eat solo. Also, a fruit reputably worth little, if the phrase 'to not give a fig about something' is taken literally. It's an ancient fruit too: the asp is brought to Cleopatra in a basket of figs. Interestingly, the word sycophant derives from the Greek for 'showing the figs'.

But enough of the trivia, let's get down to the eating! Figs featured in two dishes I enjoyed last week, the first as part of an Express Lunch at Trunk. Here it was served for entree in the peerless pairing with proscuitto di parma, with some witlof, aged balsamic and a smear of goat's cheese. The flavour match of proscuitto and figs is just exquisite, particularly when the restaurant takes the care to source quality ham.

For me the strange thing about figs is that I would never sit down to one on its own. I don't mind the flavour so much but the texture isn't one I enjoy. Yet, when properly partnered, it's a joy. I much prefer the combination of proscuitto and fig to prosciutto and melon; the latter has always seemed a step too far in terms of texture and taste contrast.

Figs also featured in a Friday night dinner at Pizzeria Amici. With the return of the fig season, their most famous pizza gets its annual reprise: figs with gorgonzola, speck and rocket. It is a superb combination. Amici get the cheese spot on, so it covers the base but doesn't overwhelm with its own richness. The figs and speck are a natural pairing and the rocket brings the bite and roughness to even it all out.

If you're craving magnificent, authentic pizza, served up with conviviality, get to Amici. Best to phone for a booking too: the locals can't believe their luck and the place is pumping every night.

19 March, 2010

Tinning the toms

For some it was a tradition to be endured then ignored; for others it's a logical conclusion to the bounty of summer produce. For me, it's a ceremony just begun, for my own fulfilment.

Tomato Day

The idea of chopping, seeding, cooking and canning tomatoes at the end of summer has appealed to me for years. I've read and heard numerous accounts - positive and otherwise - of traditional family days that produced cases of lustrous red sauce. Truth be told, it's a tradition deserving of company, of allocated roles, and a matriarch to direct proceedings.

I didn't even have a tomato plant.

The lack of produce wasn't a problem. All year I'd planned to head to Gateway Estate in Coldstream to pick up one of their 10kg, end-of-season boxes of roma tomatoes, grown on site. Gateway's store is dwarfed by their greenhouse, which is vibrant with capsicum, eggplant and tomato plants. The small retail area is crammed with firm, luscious fruit and vegetables, as well as local preserves, oils and sweets. It's also the cellar door for their own wines. These eggplants, grown on site, were magnificently firm, weighty and glossy:
While up there we headed to Gruyere, for lunch at the Red Shed Cafe, a thoroughly recommended spot.

Back home, it was time to take a knife to this lot:
In the course of the day I cooked four batches, each with a slightly different preparation. One decision to make when preparing tomatoes is to skin or not to skin. It's quite fun getting the skins off, but does add time and effort to the process. Aunty Stephy doesn't skin, but she does pass her sauce through a food mill, so she gets rid of them at the end. There's nothing wrong with leaving them on, but obviously you'll end up with a chunkier sauce.

Skinning tomatoes is quite fun, if you have the time and inclination. Cut a shallow cross in the bottom, then drop each tomato into boiling water for 10 seconds. Dunk them in cold water, then peel the skin right off. If you cut them in half after taking them out of the cold water, it's even easier to get the skin off. You're left with something that closer resembles a ball of watermelon:
Once they're peeled (or as the first step if you're leaving the skins on), cut the top (the calyx end) off the tomatoes, then cut them into quarters. Use a small knife to cut out the core, taking the seeds with it. Discard core and seeds. It can feel like you're getting rid of a lot of tomato, but you keep much more than you throw out. (Leaving the seeds in can make the sauce too bitter).

For each batch I sauteed onion in plenty of olive oil, then added the tomatoes and chopped garlic, along with a dash of red wine vinegar and plenty of dried oregano. That bubbled away to itself in a simmer for 40-60 minutes, before I added some seasoning at the end along with torn basil leaves. After that, it was time for a whizz in a food processor, then an awkward funnelling into recycled, sterilised passata jars.

A note to aspiring saucers: heat is an important part of sterilising. Add hot sauce to hot jars. If you're boiling your filled jars to form a seal, they need quite a while in the hot water (and the 'button' should pull down to indicate it's sealed).

Batch 1 was skin on, so came out a deeper red, and quite chunky. Batch 2 was skin off, and notably smoother. Batch 3 I passed through a 'sieve' (actually just a very fine strainer), creating quite an impressive jar of passata. The skins and extra bits from Batch 3 went in the food processor with Batch 4, making a last lot that stayed in the fridge for use that week.

17 March, 2010

Homesun goodness: sun-dried tomatoes

I tried growing tomatoes last summer. The plants too quickly outgrew their pot (I admit I'd been stingy on their living quarters), and while they tried valiantly to deliver up a couple of red goodies, one couldn't call the first try a success.

Later that summer, I heard Rosa Mitchell, chef at Journal Canteen, talking about making sun-dried tomatoes, something she does every year. Simply put, one cuts the tomatoes in half, removes the seeds, sprinkles them with salt, then lays them out in the sun for a few days.
And it is that simple. For three days I trotted out into the garden every half an hour or so to move them in alignment with the sun. It didn't take too long for the sun's effect to become obvious, the skins to wrinkle and the tomatoes to start to pucker as they dried out.
By the second day the smaller ones looked exactly like...well, the ones you'd buy in a shop. By the third day they'd all shrivelled and darkened, and a quick taste-test revealed they were bursting with concentrated tomato flavour.

This to me is the best kind of 'cooking'. It requires very little skill and even less equipment. What it does need is a good dash of time and a pinch of patience. But these are the ingredients I most like to bring to my food, to create things that use a bit of a nature and that are enhanced by the seasons.
The natural extension of this project was to finally instigate Tomato Day, and evoke my non-existent Mediterranean ancestors in the production of tomato sauce. Read all about it...

04 March, 2010

Bar Idda

132 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 5339

With the launch of Cheap Eats 2010 last week, Bar Idda in Brunswick East found itself in the limelight, picking up the Cheap Eats Champ award. The plaudits reminded me of our early-summer meal there, which I hadn't got to writing up.

Bar Idda opened unobtrusively into the space formerly occupied by Rumi (who moved down the street a bit to bigger premises) and replaced the space's Persian focus with a Sicilian one. With all this publicity, Bar Idda may soon have just as much trouble fitting in the hordes as Rumi did.

The menu of primi, secondi and contorni is, of course, designed to be shared. Starter options feature olives, sardines and the traditional arancino ($7.50 each).Filled with beef and pork ragu, peas, egg and mozza, it's good to share and save space for the bigger dishes to come.

Macaroni with sugo Siciliano comes with a second slug of beef and pork ragu. It's undoubtably a hefty dish, with those flakes of beef, but the macaroni is fresh and light.

The slow cooked purpetti dolce with cinnamon and tomato are exceptional. The sauce is redolent of cinnamon, but remains sweet and delicate - worth eating alone with a spoon, never mind the meatballs (particularly given we're now up to a triple serve of the signature meats)!

As soon as we'd glanced at the menu, I knew we couldn't go past the frittedda: warmed broad beans, asparagus and peas are tossed with crispy, olive-oil-fried breadcrumbs, and topped with the tiniest of red onion shavings. Eaten at the height of broad bean season, this was a dish I'd be happy to sit down to at every meal.

Wine is available by the carafe and the white walls and tall windows bring in plenty of light - two factors that always contribute to welcome atmosphere.