This restaurant has closed.
Lygon Street may be Australia's most recognisable and renowned Little Italy, but it's been a while since it's had any sort of reputation for producing great Italian food. And while there's an obvious surfeit of paint-by-number Italian joints cluttering up the footpaths, all apparently offering the same (oversized, laminated) menu, the street still has room for places that fly in the face of the perceived tourist-trap wisdom. Balzari, with its thoroughly attractive combination of authentic, careful cooking, pared-back aesthetic and engaging approach is one of these places. It's a restaurant that reminds you of a time when Lygon Street was at the centre of Melbourne's burgeoning food culture.
Part of Balzari's charm is that from the moment you walk in, it strikes you as an honest, humble kind of place. It helps that owner Simon Balzary is usually there, greeting people and working the floor with his similarly charming and hospitable team, which includes his wife Aviva. It gives the place an immediate hands-on feel that syncs well with the room's simple lines.
It's a handsome enough space, but this is certainly no mega-swanky fit-out. In fact, with its terrazzo floor, dark timber and marble bar, bentwood chairs and linen-draped tables, Balzari deliberately aligns itself with old-school Lygon Street restaurants. There are beaded glass light fittings and a couple of oversized round mirrors on the wall, but those small designer flourishes aside, the room is comfortingly familiar. The main kitchen is down one end of the bar, so there's the added homeyness of having the chef cook in the same room you're eating in.
Chef Joel Valvasori-Pereza's family hails from the region of Friuli in Italy and, having made the pilgrimage back there to eat and cook several years ago, he has its flavours front and centre at Balzari.
Friuli is positioned at a sort of crossroads in the north-east of Italy, so its food (and Valvasori-Pereza's cooking) shows the influences of nearby Austria and Slovenia, as well as its regional Italian neighbour, Veneto. Braised cuttlefish with polenta, for example, is based on a dish that's fairly common along the Adriatic coast, all black with ink and slippery-salty, with an underlying flavour of onions, celery and garlic. But Valvasori-Pereza enhances the original by adding just a spark of chilli to the cuttlefish. The dark, inky tumble lying across the pale yellow of the soft, creamy polenta looks brilliant and follows through on the palate with hearty flavours.
There's a similar reinterpretation of rustic, traditional cooking in the salsiccia Friulana, a beauty of a dish that teams a fat house-made, spiced pork sausage with a salad of peas and mint. The sausage is made according to a secret family recipe from flavoursome pork neck. It has a nice chunkiness to it and a subtle showing of cinnamon and nutmeg. There's also a slightly sweet braised white onion sitting to one side, and tiny pieces of pancetta adding salty notes to the mix. It's a nicely balanced dish, both refreshing and robust.
The kitchen's trick of refining what are essentially peasant flavours without losing the essence, or the integrity, of the dish works particularly well with the pasta dishes. All the pasta is handmade, whether it's the playing-it-straight rich and cheesy cannelloni filled with Berkshire pork and tomato ragù that comes to the table bubbling in its stoneware dish, or a quite gorgeous spinach and ricotta ravioli teamed with a slightly sweet, buttery sauce of figs and walnuts and topped with shavings of Montasio cheese, a sharpish, salty native of Friuli.
There are also a few Friulian natives on the wine list, a reasonably compact but well-directed collection that spends equal time in the Old and New Worlds, with a particular love for northern Italian varietals such as friulano, dolcetto and malvasia. Much of the list seems to have been chosen with one eye on value, so while you won't see any massively priced Barolos, you'll find a lot of interesting drinking at a price that perfectly suits the surrounds. There are some good choices by the glass, a small beer list (that, somewhat disappointingly, only runs to one Italian beer - Birra Menabrea) and some pretty terrific snack-sized items on the menu, making Balzari a very attractive proposition for a quick drink/snack scenario too.
The curly fried bread "twigs" served with Mount Zero olives marinated in orange zest, chilli, garlic, rosemary and sage are a fine and potentially addictive snack, but there's even better fried dough goodness to be had in the savoury fritole, a traditional northern Italian dish of bite-sized doughnuts flavoured with anchovies, lemon and parsley. Scallops, seared and topped with an apple, walnut and candied pancetta salad, add further interest in the small eats department.
Main courses at Balzari change regularly and so appear on a blackboard menu rather than the printed list. If it's on, it's an excellent idea to order the goat spezzatino, a sprightly flavoured stew slow-cooked with lots of herbs and white wine. Goat's cheese is tossed on top, its creaminess working well with the slight fattiness of the goat, and an accompanying cannellini bean and celery salad provides freshness and earthiness.
Roast barramundi is also impressive, cooked simply on its skin, seasoned with fresh rosemary salt and finished with a quick flip in a pan and some butter. It comes with a vibrant salad of beans, chives, cherry tomatoes and basil leaves that has, oddly but successfully, the slightest hint of ginger in the dressing. According to Valvasori-Pereza, ginger is, if not a common ingredient in Friuli, not unheard of, a product perhaps of the region's "crossroads" status.
At the dolci end of the meal, the menu lists the usual classic suspects - chocolate semifreddo, vanilla bean panna cotta - but adds a few seasonal treats, such as a watermelon salad that combines fresh watermelon with watermelon sorbet and jelly and then dresses it all with aged balsamic vinegar and mint.
Part of Balzari's immediate charm undoubtedly comes from being a restaurant with cooking integrity, switched-on service and a wine list that is more than halfway decent on Lygon Street's most touristy stretch. But it's not just in comparison with its neighbours that Balzari is so appealing. This is a restaurant capable of delivering the goods in any location.
PHOTOGRAPHY JULIAN KINGMA
This article is from the May 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.