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Italy on the Yarra

Much about Rosetta, Neil Perry’s first Italian foray, is writ large – lavish décor, prices – but it’s the attention to detail and authenticity that make it a winner, writes Michael Harden.

The seafood, grilled. That would be the sure thing in the event of someone holding a gun to your head and demanding you choose one item on Rosetta's voluminous menu. Technically, though, the seafood (tossed onto a Mallee-root-fired char-grill, flavoured with the poetic simplicity of garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt and parsley) is not on the main menu. It's listed on a separate card that's changed every day because the seafood changes every day, too.

Being Neil Perry's version of an Italian restaurant, Rosetta is a place where ingredient quality is non-negotiable, which is perhaps the restaurant's most authentically Italian face. Elsewhere, particularly with the décor, the Italian-ness is consciously theatrical, humorous, designed, even a little artificial, though in a thoroughly attractive way.

But in the open kitchen there's no messing about with the age-old Italian formula of great ingredients, simply cooked. So if there's no worthwhile cuttlefish available to toss on the grill that day, then you might have to settle for king prawns or local mussels or little octopus tentacles instead. But, whatever comes your way, it will have smokiness curling around licks of citric tang and perfectly balanced saltiness, and there'll be no argument with the quality.

Of course, quality comes at a cost and some prices on Rosetta's menu are of eyebrow-raising calibre. Not all the prices are jolting, but many would baulk at paying $65 for a moderately sized plate of pasta, even when informed that the dish in question, tagliarini neri, includes decent quantities of beautiful hand-picked mud crab, flavoured with olive oil, lemon, parsley, chilli, fennel pollen and salt, and resting on a bed of dramatic ebony squid-ink pasta. It probably represents decent value for money. But still.

It's hard to avoid the issue of money generally at Rosetta. It is, of course, part of Crown, located at the high-roller end of the casino, and the fairly public machinations that delayed its opening several times involved big names and big bucks.

The place itself is big, too - nudging 200 seats inside and out - and lavish, with marble and wood-panelling, Murano glass chandeliers and luxuriously upholstered banquettes, lush carpets and huge vases stuffed with perfect roses. There's a fabulous terrace, all oversized wicker furniture and banquettes upholstered in swirling blue Pucci-inspired fabric that gamely channels the Italian Riviera on the banks of the Yarra.

Iain Halliday's design is impressive, and he has been unafraid of a well-placed old-school Italian ristorante cliché, such as the massed framed black and white photos of famous Italians on the walls. Nor has he shied from some good-natured ostentation: soaring ceilings with enormous chandeliers, and multiple shades and grains of marble that clad much of the floor, the bar and many spaces in between.

Rosetta is also the most feminine of Perry's Crown ventures, with ruched curtains, flowers aplenty, light colours and pretty scalloped detailing in the windows that surround the restaurant and the edges of the paper menus in their gelato colours.

With so much conspicuous luxury on display, and with the kind of prices it charges, it's obvious that Rosetta's sights are firmly on the upper branches of the Italian restaurant tree. It's less about cannibalising its fellow Italian stablemate at Crown, Robert Marchetti's raucous Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons, and more about throwing down the gauntlet to places like Grossi Florentino. It's an impressive gauntlet.

The restaurant was designed from scratch as part of the recently completed extension at the front of Crown Towers hotel, so Perry was able to build his dream Italian kitchen. There's a woodfired oven (responsible for much of the meat-cooking on the menu), char-grill (the seafood's good friend) and a dedicated pasta-making room downstairs where two chefs set about making the 12 to 16 different types of pasta that grace the menu each day.

No surprise, then, that pasta is one of the highlights of the menu and, because of the slightly astonishing variety, the cause of much decision-making anxiety.

The types of pasta on the list come from all over Italy, from austere flour and water numbers from the south to the more egg-rich varieties from further north.

There's agnolotti al plin, egg yolk pasta stuffed with a wonderfully rich paste of roast rabbit, pork and veal mixed with spinach and parmesan that's tossed in a sage and butter sauce. Or dainty pieces of king prawn sautéed with garlic, chilli and prawn stock before being tossed through spaghetti alla chitarra with crushed pistachios. Or a rich terracotta-red tomato, pancetta and roasted pork rib sauce that accompanies a rustic maccaronara. Or ravioloni, slippery and shiny with a burnt butter and sage sauce, and stuffed with finely chopped sopressa salami and brilliant house-made ricotta.

For a closer look at the excellent, smooth ricotta (made daily so it never needs to be refrigerated) it can be found on the fine list of antipasti. Here the cheese is teamed with wood-roasted beefsteak tomatoes.

A similar simplicity of approach runs across all the entrées at Rosetta. San Daniele prosciutto comes with shavings of crunchy, sweet raw cabbage and parmesan. Boiled asparagus is teamed with halved boiled eggs and a snowfall of finely grated parmesan. A gorgeous-looking kingfish carpaccio, the pale pink slices flavoured with a mix of olive oil and lemon juice, is strewn with capers, flecks of startlingly red chilli and a scattering of pale green baby cress.

There's simplicity, of sorts, in the wine list, too. It's almost an all-Italian affair apart from a brief foray over the border to Champagne and across to the New World. Otherwise, it's Aussie versions of Italian varieties (Mac Forbes Yarra Valley arneis, solita nebbiolo from the Adelaide Hills) and, by far the majority, Italian labels. There are many reasons to love David Lawler's list, but two of the best are that it's surprisingly democratic in terms of cost, with prices starting at $35 before soaring to some dizzying heights, and that it's (relatively) brief, clocking in at about 16 pages of expertly curated, regionally focused labels. It's an exciting read.

The list is helped along with solid wine service, though service generally can be patchy. There are many experienced and competent people in the front of house team, but Rosetta requires plenty of staff to make it run smoothly and some inexperienced newcomers make for an uneven ride that's not consistent with the expectations created by the offer of a $65 bowl of pasta.

There's no faulting the generosity, though. The excellent house-made bread and hand-rolled grissini are readily topped up, while sides such as a wonderfully big-flavoured spinach number with roast tomato and rosemary potatoes baked to correct crunchiness in the woodfired oven are impressively proportioned. That oven is also responsible for an excellent array of roasted meats that includes a superb suckling lamb served Roman-style with peas sautéed to sweet pliability in onion, garlic and oil, and a benchmark porchetta that comes with a goodly amount of fat, outstanding crackling and mustard fruits made by a small producer in Naples.

Desserts follow the classic path. The list comprises the likes of tiramisù and a wondrously light panna cotta made with fior di latte and surrounded by a brilliant scarlet compote of rhubarb and strawberry, the flavours of which are as vibrant as the colour. There's seasonally changing gelati, too, and trad pasticcini including a trio of tiny ricotta-filled cannoli filled with a ricotta cream that's satisfyingly voluptuous without being too sugary, which shatter satisfyingly when you bite into them.

For something a little grander in the way of sweet stuff, there's the cioccolato torrone. It's a disc of frozen chocolate and peanut parfait, studded with shards of nougat, coated with a thick layer of toasted coconut and set in a wide, shallow pool of thick eggy crème Anglaise. It's foolish to leave without ordering it.

The wags have already dubbed Rosetta "Wogpool" and there's no avoiding the Neil Perry stamp here: the big dining space, lengthy menu, dramatic fit-out, immaculately sourced produce, impressive wine list and big prices are all present and accounted for. But there's nothing formulaic or rehashed about Rosetta and not just because it's Perry's first Italian foray. There's a freshness, an energy and sense of fun that's partially due to the over-the-top glamour of the décor, but is also centred on the quality and authenticity of the flavours and attention to detail. Rosetta feels both theatrical and true-to-life at the same time. Given the casino location, it's a win-win situation.


Rosetta

Riverside at Crown, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, (03) 8648 1999, rosettaristorante.com
Licensed.
Open Lunch Tue-Sun noon-3pm, dinner daily 6pm-10pm.
Cards AE DC MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $16-$30, main courses $21-$65, desserts $5-$21.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Vegetarian Three entrées and three pastas.
Noise Gentle.
Plus Neil Perry's quality-produce obsession given an Italian accent.
Minus Prices run to the eye-wateringly expensive.

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Rosetta

Riverside at Crown, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, (03) 8648 1999, rosettaristorante.com
Licensed.
Open Lunch Tue-Sun noon-3pm, dinner daily 6pm-10pm.
Cards AE DC MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $16-$30, main courses $21-$65, desserts $5-$21.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Vegetarian Three entrées and three pastas.
Noise Gentle.
Plus Neil Perry's quality-produce obsession given an Italian accent.
Minus Prices run to the eye-wateringly expensive.

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