Melbourne adventures – Topolino’s, St Kilda

I don’t get home to see my folks much as we live in different cities and life continually manages to get in the way. But when I do, it’s a pretty fantastic opportunity to hang out with the olds over food. Eating it, cooking it, looking at it, talking about it – it’s all good. Our family is a bunch of foodies and living food it what we do.

I first went down to Melbourne before my parents moved there, when I was a teenager, and my mum took me to this restaurant along Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, Topolino’s. I think it’s one of those restaurants that’s been there for the last 30 or 40 years. It’s not fancy, it’s not particularly expensive, but there’s a good reason it’s been there that long. Over Christmas I was down in Melbourne for the holiday and, having a lot of food to eat and cook in a small amount of time, what better way to re-live good memories than to hit up Topolino’s again.

We started off with a couple of drinks – a Heineken ($7.5), Coopers Sparkling ($7.5) and glass of the Merlot ($7.9) as we pondered the menu, facing the challenges of dining out: pizza or pasta? Creamy or tomato? Seafood or not? First world problems.

At an Italian restaurant, mum picks one dish and one dish only: the fettucine marinara. Topolino’s version ($19.9 for a main size, or $16.9 for a very, very generous entree size – mum wisely went for the latter) did not disappoint. As the blogger of foods, I took on the labourious task of trying everyone’s meal (if I must….). The marinara sauce tasted sufficiently seafoody and was well-seasoned and rich. The squid gets mega points for its incredible tenderness – no rubber bands here! The seafood was altogether plentiful, as you can see. In fact, we felt that the only difference between the main and entree sizes was the amount of pasta – we thought that the amount of seafood was probably the same in both.

Finding nemo

Finding nemo

Dad followed suit, with a marinara pizza ($13.9). My initial thoughts of “a small? soft!” were batted away when a dinner plate-sized “small” pizza arrived, smoking hot out of the oven and teaming with huge prawns and mussels. This, of course, brought up the debate of the thin-crusted wood-fired pizza versus the normal commercial oven-cooked with a thicker base conundrum. My love of the sparsely-topped, super crunchy wood-fired version has officially been knocked off its podium by Topolino’s crunchy, chunky, seafood-filled, sufficiently charry explosion of deliciousness.

IMG_0190

I like to be under the sea

I went for one of the specials of the night – fettucine with spicy sausage and peas ($16.9). I have to admit that whilst mine was rich, delicious and altogether plentiful…it just wasn’t possible for it to stack up to the two marinaras. That said, the sauce was very well flavoured. The peas provided a nice interruption of lightness to the dish and three plump, slightly spicy sausages were intertwined with the mass of well-cooked pasta.

itsa spicy sausage

itsa spicy sausage

We were all sufficiently stuffed by the end; I couldn’t finish my incredibly generous serving of pasta. We took a super pleasant walk around the back streets and down to the esplanade while the sun was still out. An amazing night 🙂

Topolino’s
87 Fitzroy Street
St Kilda VIC 3182

Food? 9/10…what the hell, let’s go 10/10. Great value for money, expertly cooked food and delicious as hell.
Drinks? 8/10 – not a bad drinks list at all. A good range of wines both by the glass and bottle, over a decent array of prices. Probably could have been a few more interesting beers, though
Atmosphere: 8/10 – the fun, friendly, relaxed, welcoming atmostphere of the restaurant draws a range of clientele – parties, families, a group of young lads, casual dates. Too many bratty kids…but hey, they’ve gotta eat and I’m sure I was one once.

 Topolino's on Urbanspoon

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Signorelli Gastronomia, Pyrmont

With the end of the work week approaching, a need to rediscover comfort eating nice and close to home and a voice in my ear saying “Itsa me, Mario” (that voice turned out to be my colleague finishing off an Italian meatball sub), I thought “what better way than to eat my way through pizza, pasta and all sorts of tricolore delicacies – all the while washing it down with a fine Chianti?”. The answer was nothing. I grabbed my dining friend, and off we set, a long walk into the sunset, towards Signorelli Gastronomia in Pyrmont – yes, the place that seemingly only serves the whole spit-roasted pig.

Lisa...why would you eat me?

Lisa…why would you eat me?

Having conducted earlier research in the hours of bludging that a Friday afternoon presents, I’d already gotten the salivation out of the way and worked out how to subtly convince said dining friend to order the many dishes I wanted to try – one of the few good tactics I got out of law school.

We started off with a Peroni ($7) and a glass from their really quite decent by-the-glass wine list of the Tedeschi Soave Veneto ($11). I only wish more dining friends enjoyed wine so I could have gone for the bottle – their 13 page wine list has decent varieties from Aus, Italy, France and Spain. We were also brought a basket of warmed crusty bread for dipping into a nice little pot of quality oil on the side – a great way to start.

Food-wise, we shared an entree of the salumi, prosciutto, bresaola, grana padano and parchment bread (a generous serve at $19). The meats were thin shavings of the flavoursome meats. Not as overpowering as some I’ve had, but a nice way to start. Equally, the grana padano was nice, sharp and bitey. As we eventually ran out the accompanying biscuits, we were swiftly presented with another serving of bread from our attentive waiter.

Probably too much for two people - not like that stopped us (me)

Probably too much for two people – not like that stopped us (me)

Having suffered immediate regret at our ambitious ordering of two mains to share, we gallantly pressed on. Our waiters appeared to see our visible fullness and gave us a pleasant amount of time to digest (or, perhaps they were temporarily flustered over the work christmas party that had just arrived, probably from the Google building upstairs or something).

The first of our mains arrived – the Italian sausage, mushroom and olive pizza ($24) – brought swiftly across from the pizza chap, working feverishly away in the corner. Which brings me to my next point: the travesty that is the open kitchen. Sure, it makes an intriguing spectacle of the chef. Sure it breeds hygiene as the result of nosy customers. But what about the chef? What about his privacy to wipe his sweaty brow? To pick up that piece of capsicum that fell on the floor – within the 5 second rule?  To scratch that itchy armpit? A travesty indeed.

Anyway, sweaty brow or not, the pizza was delicious. The crust with that sought-out balance of crispy / chewy with the little black spots and the sparse ingredients. Just the way I like it. That said, at $24, it was just a little bit rich for me.

I'ma Luigi

I’ma Luigi

Just to round out the Italian experience, for research purposes of course, our other main of potato gnocchi with calamari, buffalo mozzarella and zucchini arrived shortly after ($30 for main size). The gnocchi was surprisingly light and springy, which was a pleasant change from the stodgy experience of gnocchis past. The sauce that delicately coated eat morsel of the carb was so incredibly flavourful of seafood. It was delicious and really made the dish. I was somewhat disappointed with the calamari. Although it was well cooked, there just wasn’t a lot of it. Apart from the one curl, there were a few little “off-cuts” circling around the dish, but nothing much else to speak of; a similar thought with the zucchini flower. I thought they could have done more with it, and a blanched zucchini flower floating around just isn’t that overwhelming. The saving grace of that dish really was the flavour of the seafoody broth.

Gnocchi me out!

Gnocchi me out!

Overall, it was actually a really good experience. Our waiter was hilarious and personable. The restaurant, although increasingly busy, did not deplete the good service. My mini-rant about the gnocchi shouldn’t be taken out of context – the dish was absolutely delicious; just a few picky points here and there. The surrounding tables were lively, the atmosphere was this cool, dark, casual Italian kitchen – complete with “providore” section of various sauces, wines and I think a couple of cheese, from memory.

Signorelli GastronomiaGround floor of the Accenture/Google Building
Trouton Place, Pyrmont

Food? 8/10 – nice, decent quality ingredients, although value for money was a bit over the place
Drinks? 9/10 – a good list of (reasonably priced) wines by the glass and even better list of wines by the bottle
Atmosphere? 8/10 – sort of weird placement in that you walk through the foyer of an office block, but once inside, very nice.
Recommend it? Yes for a cool little spot to meet friends or go on a date. Funny, personable waiters, good service, good food and good times.

Signorelli Gastronomia on Urbanspoon

Two for the price of one – baked lamb meatballs and baked eggplant extravaganza

We recently had a (relatively) bloody cold day in Sydney, even though getting into summer the temperature should be hovering around the high twenties. Realising this was probably my last chance to eat warming, scrummy comfort food before the onslaught of what is an Australian summer hits, I took the opportunity to cook up a storm – baked lamb meatballs, and also what I would like to call a baked eggplant extravaganza. I give you good deal – two for the price of one.

I actually only took a picture of the lamb meatballs as both dishes looked approximately exactly the same – various delicious goods baked in a hearty tomato sauce and topped with stretchy, gooey mozzarella look the same – whaddaya know.

First up – the lamb.

You will need:
– Lamb! I baked enough for about 3 or 4 people and used about 500 grams of minced lamb
– 1 onion, diced (I used half in the meatballs and half in the tomato sauce)
– 4 cloves of garlic, chopped (because everyone should get more bullish about garlic) – half for the meatballs, half for the sauce
– salt and pepper to taste
– a nice handful of basil
– 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
– a couple of those little baby eggplant (or half a big eggplant), cut into small (say, 1cm) chunks (optional)
– tomato paste
– 1 nice, hot red chilli (optional)
– mozzarella (however cheesey you like your food) – I used about 4 of those bocconcini (the smaller mozzarella) balls

Step 1 – mary had a little lamb: in a bowl, mix your lamb, half the onion, half the garlic, salt and pepper and half the basil. Get your hands in there and really give it a good mix. Roll these into little spheres – however big you like (I went for golf-ball sized) and, if you like, stuff a tiny cube of mozzarella into each ball. Make sure you seal the meat around the cheese well!

Gettin’ friendly

Step 2 – if at first you don’t succeed, then fry, fry again: heat some olive oil in a saucepan on a med-high heat and place your beautiful meatballs in to fry, turning as each side becomes golden.

Lamby goodness

Step 3 – mamma mia: once your meatballs are golden (don’t be too worried if they’re not cooked through at this stage), add your eggplants (if using) and fry off for a couple of minutes. Tip in a can of diced tomatoes, the remaining basil, some tomato paste and chilli, if you want a little heat. Let these simmer away for a few minutes until some of the liquid evaporates.

Simmer away, my little lamby friends

Step 4 – wakey bakey: you could stop at step 3 and have a delicious dish – a really great pasta sauce, even – but in the words of some wanky chef, somewhere, I’m going to take this one to the next level (I got this). Tip your meaty lamby mixture into a casserole dish, top with carelessly torn mozzarella, strewn at random, and bake at about 200 degrees celcius until the mozza is melty and slightly goldy.

Baked lamb droolballs

Second up… for those Sunday nights when the depression of the coming work week hits its hardest, you’ve come off the back of a busy, fun filled weekend of running around, hanging out in the sun and having a brewski or two…and all you want is dinner on a plate, in front of your, not in an hour… now.

You will need:
– the rest of that pack of baby eggplant you bought for the lamb meatballs recipe… (I used about 5 or so)
– bacon! I used about 5 rashers, chopped
– half an onion, chopped
– 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
– the rest of the mozzarella (if you like getting cheesey)
– a tin of diced tomatoes
– basil, a nice handful

Step 1 – there’s really only one step: heat a saucepan – you don’t really need oil, some will come from the bacon fat (yes, gross, but delicious). Chuck in your bacon and onion and fry until the onion is translucent and the bacon with nice little golden bits on it (oh, and until any bacon fat renders). Add your garlic at this point, and also the eggplants, halved. Fry your eggplants until they’re nice and golden and gettin’ squishy. Tip in your tomatoes and basil. Simmer until some of the water has evaporated. Then, if you like, tip into a baking dish, top with mozzarella and bake at 200 degrees until it all looks nicely golden and melty. That’s it! That’s all.

Cafe Sopra at Fratelli Fresh, Walsh Bay

Ah Fratelli Fresh. You pull me in with the crowd surrounding your front doors, the rich smells wafting in the surrounding radius, your reputation of down to earth, real Italian fare. But then you deceive me with your service. Your flustered – yet apologetic and really very friendly staff. Your girls at the bar who have mastered the art of avoiding eye contact. Your wait staff who march frantically, whilst not actually seeming to do anything at all.

Anyway, end rant. Onto far more important things: the food.

This was my third visit to Cafe Sopra over in Walsh Bay – with me forgetting to bring a camera for the first two.  Having walked out with what can only be described as a food baby during my first two visits, I decided that this time I wasn’t going to be pulled into the ever-luring trap of over-ordering this time.

After a fairly long (20 minutes) wait, my dining friend (who shall forever be known as DF) and I settled into our table at the bar and ordered a sour italian ($14.50, a campari / grapefruit and other various ingredients delight) and a peroni on tap. We gazed at the menu casually written on one of two blackboard on opposing sides of the room (unfortunately a few items had been crossed off the menu by this stage (about 8pm on a Saturday night)). After going back and forth a few times, we agreed on sharing a Ragu alla Bolognese ($20) and the Crisp Polenta with Gorgonzola and Oyster Mushrooms ($18). I also moved on to a glass (or three) of the Mellini Chianti Classico ($7.50), with DF sticking to the Peronis.

The menu

The meals came out promptly, although I suspect that the Polenta may have been sitting there for a teensy while under those heat lamps as it didn’t have that delightfully crisp exterior that I had been salivating over. The dish was still fantastic, however, with 6 logs of fried polenta topped with juicy oyster mushrooms and enveloped in a creamy, rich gorgonzola sauce (with a sprinking of parsely – hey, you need to eat your greens). I actually visited the Fratelli Fresh website early the next day and felt more than guilty that it had been made with about half a litre of cream, reduced, and a good handful of the blue cheese (http://www.fratellifresh.com.au/recipe_detail.asp?recipe_id=11). Well, at least I walked back home that night….

Crisp polenta with oyster mushrooms and gorgonzola

The bolognese was similarly fantastic. The very definition of comfort food. A very decent-sized serving arrived, piping hot, with the pasta cooked just how I like it – really quite al dente. The ragu was rich and tomato-y with chunks of meat rather than mince. None of this lasted particularly long and we had licked the platters clean a short time later

Ragu alla bolognese

DF decided on dessert, while I did the classic girl move – not ordering dessert, yet devouring half of his. Somehow it made sense in my head that if I didn’t order the dessert, I also would not be guilty of introducing calories to the table. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, but one of the specials on the night was a limoncello cheesecake ($14.50). The base was not biscuit-y, as you might normally expect for a New York-style cheesecake. Rather, it was like a pie shell. This was not necessarily a bad thing. The filling was rich with a decent, but not overpowering, lemon element, and was served with a healthy dollop of marscapone on the side. Much like the mains, I suspect that someone hiding under the bar must have snuck a few bites because the plate was clean before I even realised.

On previous visits (sorry, no photos) I’d had zucchini fritters filled with four cheeses (at $4.50 each, they’re pretty steep, but are crisp and cooked to perfection, with a warm, flavourful filling), bucattini alla carbonara ($18 the last time I went – this is possibly the best carbonara I have ever had. None of this ham mixed with white creamy sauce garbage; this is the real deal. Chunks of crispy speck, egg mixed in, approximately 25 cloves of garlic and again, perfectly al dente pasta), fettucini meatballs and fresh tomato sauce ($20; a few large – and I mean large – baseball sized meatballs, juicy and not at all dry in the centre, served atop a mound of perfectly rich tomato sauce and pasta), the lamb ragu tubetti with rosemary and chilli ($20, brilliant. Much like the ragu alla bolognese, is a heaping of the “tubetti” pasta interspersed with chunky, meaty lamb – my only complaint was that I couldn’t really taste the chilli) and – finally – the one and only banoffee pie ($14.50, a thick, crisp, buttery biscuit base topped with an equally sized and incredibly rich caramel (think: dulce de leche), thin slices of fresh banana and a whooooole lotta cream. I guarantee you will feel sick….but a happy sick, if there is such a feeling).

The great banoffee torte

Well that’s it. My wrap-up of Cafe Sopra at Fratelli Fresh. The food is epic; the service not so. When the dinner rush had calmed, our waitress stopped by our table and apologetically explained that they have an almost nightly rush with diners scurrying to fit in a speedy, quality meal before heading to a show in one of the theatres down the road. But hey – if you’ve got a lazy evening ahead of you and don’t mind a bit of a wait to get seated, then I give it two great big thumbs up.

Cafe Sopra @ Fratelli Fresh, Walsh Bay
Shop 8, 16 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay 2000

Café Sopra at Fratelli Fresh on Urbanspoon