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The Italian job

Roberto Scheriani hits the big time with Melbourne’s power dining set in the CBD, reports John Lethlean.

In the foyer, by the elevators, is a list of tenants: the companies - and the people - who ride the lifts and ascend the 'Tower of Power' each morning, coming down occasionally to eat, drink, do coffee and deals.

It's a restaurateur's dream - blue-chip investment banks, the cream of commercial law, stockbrokers, venture capitalists, property firms and miners. There's even an ex-prime minister in the building.

Welcome to 101 Collins, quite possibly the single most potent concentration of influence and power in Melbourne, if not Australia. It is to the south what Waterfront Place is to Brisbane or Chifley Tower to Sydney. It is the address. And, to paraphrase city father John Batman, who famously declared in 1835 that Melbourne's current site was a suitable place "for a village", this is a very suitable place for a restaurant.

And so it proves to be at lunchtime for Roberto Scheriani's latest incarnation, after moving across from Flinders Lane earlier this year. Inside, it's wall-to-wall worsted wool, silk ties and conservative Italian and English shoes, except for trucking magnate Lindsay Fox, who eschews the preferred garb of fellow diners (and the man at his table, rag-trade magnate Solly Lew) for a poloneck, knitted fisherman's jumper, into which he sensibly tucks a big, white linen square provided by the restaurant to keep suits, shirts - and jumpers - tidy over lunch.

Here at The Italian, the language of the table is far more challenging than that of the menu and is, quite literally, that of mergers, reverse takeovers, indexed funds and page three of today's Fin. Scheriani has kept his ears open during the past couple of years, after a stint in Port Melbourne (R-Bar). Now the training-wheels are off and, with this bold new space, he's created a restaurant he knows city suits want.

From Scheriani's old digs across Flinders Lane - a typically 'buried' Melbourne laneways restaurant in the Mercer Building basement where he and chef Andy Logue built the business - the Italian veteran has seen first-hand the power and money that spills out of 101 Collins' back door every day, heading out for lunch.

When a soaring space within the building that was already supplying plenty of his customers became available last year, the leap was made, a deal done; even better, rumour has it the landlord at 101 Collins contributed to Scheriani's undoubtedly expensive fit-out.

Scheriani must be doing something right.

Melbourne may be growing but its restaurant population - or, at least, the number of restaurant seats on offer at any given time - is growing faster. The Italian is a restaurant that could be siphoning customers from the likes of the Florentino, Becco, Cecconi's, Bottega and Il Solito Posto, to name but a few. Its sheer size, staff entourage, kitchen brigade and impressive wine list mark this as Scheriani's serious crack at the big time and, in professionalism, it's a long way from the days of the Ristorante Roberto of the mid-90s.

With its largely male lunch crowd in full flight - a wave that crashes around 12.30pm each weekday - The Italian quite possibly has the reverse problem of many restaurants that can't quite fire during the day yet come alive by candlelight. We'll see.

It all starts with the premises; a giant, multi-level void with daylight on two fronts, turned into something dramatic, yet user-friendly by Melbourne architect John Mikulic. He has given The Italian a warm, easy-to-like feel that makes the most of the internal volume, the city streetscapes outside via soaring windows and a courtyard suspended above Flinders Lane. There's plenty of timber, quirky light fittings, red leather booths, polished boards, customised carpets and impossibly high timber wine shelving accessed by a rolling ladder on rails.

But it's the space that makes an impression; the sheer volume, from the entry-level café/bar up to the first-level dining floor, with its direct access to the courtyard, and the ceiling that's almost as high as the salaries of those senior partners somewhere above in their plush offices, as well as the natural light that has been well integrated into the design.

The Italian is a place that feels special yet unpretentious, and that's a pretty good metaphor for the food and wine on offer. This is well-executed, user-friendly Italian food - the default CBD business lunch of this decade and the last, too. And Logue, who learned his chops at Sydney institution Buon Ricordo, has built up not only a closer understanding of his clientele's preferences during the past few years in the neighbourhood but also a greater confidence and finesse.

Negotiating Logue's menu is both simple and pleasurable. There might as well be a sub-heading: Italian food that's good, not fancy. 

Sometime in the near future, I intend to sample a roasted tomato soup with fregola and salt cod, a few butterflied and crumbed sardines with a pine nut, tomato and tarragon dressing and a pappardelle with shiraz-braised agrodolce duck. Brains with steamed potatoes and parsley sauce is the sort of timeless peasant dish that gladdens the heart.
And I have heard much praise for the restaurant's chargrilled rib-eye and a similarly grilled poussin with spices and lemon. Next time.

For now, it's a really tasty 'terrine Valle d'Aosta', a dish originating from that northern-most province of Italy abutting the Alps, riddled with pork, chicken livers, rabbit meat and pistachios, all peppered with five-spice and bound with pancetta. Logue serves it simply and confidently with a lightly dressed salad of cress and a mound of mostarda - mustard fruits - and chargrilled Dench sourdough crostini.

That's it. And it's fabulous.

His left-of-centre take on vitello tonnato is a bit of a rough diamond: with polishing, it will sparkle. It's a 'warm salad of veal tongue', which translates into quickly grilled slices of tender, slightly charred tongue topped with a herb-flecked tuna mayonnaise (like vitello tonnato), grilled chilli, crisp-fried basil leaves and a dressing of olive oil. The chilli hit is a bit of a whack but there is a pleasing rightness to the combination that will respond to refinement.

Naturally, there is a pasta/rice section on the menu, which includes polenta served with yet more offal, honeycomb tripe. Previous experience suggests that this will still be a wonderful dish. You'll also find other classic winter stuff - ravioli verde with a rabbit ragù and hand-rolled pici with oxtail ragù - alongside an all-seasons classic, spaghettini with blue swimmer crab meat, tomato and a tomato-based sauce with a touch of chilli. Nothing experimental or profound but a beautifully balanced pasta.

Like so many restaurants now, The Italian keeps the price differential between entrées and mains fairly slim. The mains are cheap! It also keeps the lid on wine mark-ups in a way our friends at the Crown could learn from. It's smart business: not only do so many of the restaurant's customers know the retail price of good wine, as Scheriani himself says, half of them own vineyards. He doesn't try to con them.

Our Poggio Argentiera 2006 Morellino di Scansano DOC 'Bellamarsilia' - an unoaked blend of three sangiovese clones from Maremma in Tuscany, was indicative of the depth and breadth of Italian wines on offer at the restaurant, this being at the cheaper ($60) end of the spectrum. A delight.

My idea of a great lunch main course is the semi-boned Yarra Valley Jurassic quail, stuffed with ricotta and garlic-sautéed nutmeg spinach and wrapped in pancetta before being seared and roasted. It's served with quail stock, white wine, sage and pancetta sauce, roasted new potatoes and carrot sticks.  It's basic but brilliantly executed with a clean, glossy sauce that has just the right level of acidity, lovely, pink fragrant meat and a backbone of porky flavour.

The Ligurian fish stew is another crowd-pleaser, one of those is-it-a-soup, is-it-stew-type dishes based on a good fish stock, tomato and garlic. The flavours are long and lean, a proper Italian background to the jumble of local black mussels, a scampi, prawns, pipis and white fillet, served with aïoli-smeared charry crostini. At less than $30, it's great value for money. 

The dessert list at The Italian won't raise many eyebrows but what they do, they do properly.

A vanilla panna cotta with dark, brooding morello cherries in their syrup is as good a match of flavours and textures as you're likely to find. And Logue's bomboloni - golden golf ball-sized nuggets of deep-fried lemon-scented ricotta batter - come with a Cognac-laced chocolate sauce. If this is his answer to the churros-and-chocolate-sauce craze sweeping Melbourne, it's not a bad one. Logue's little cinnamon-sugared balls are light, fragrant and quite addictive.

Indeed, the whole experience is one you find yourself looking forward to repeating. The place is professional; it offers value; the cooking is just as it should be and the style timeless. And I can't quite tell who is happier: Roberto Scheriani or his tenants.


The Italian

101 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9654 9499. Licensed.
Open Mon-Fri 7am-late; Sat 6pm-11pm.
Prices Entrées $16.50-$25, mains $29-$68, desserts $15. 
Noise Gentle.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A sense of occasion without pretence.
Minus Some wait staff are better than others.
Vegetarian Two entrées, two mains.

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The Italian

101 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9654 9499. Licensed.
Open Mon-Fri 7am-late; Sat 6pm-11pm.
Prices Entrées $16.50-$25, mains $29-$68, desserts $15. 
Noise Gentle.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A sense of occasion without pretence.
Minus Some wait staff are better than others.
Vegetarian Two entrées, two mains.

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