Restaurant Reviews

The best Italian restaurants in Melbourne

From beloved trattorias serving traditional fare to first-rate kitchens buzzing with creativity and experimentation.

In the kitchen at Tipo 00 (Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen)
1. Bar Carolina
South Yarra's dining reputation has been further rehabilitated with the arrival of this lean, dark and handsome diner. It's the third restaurant from the team behind Sarti and Il Bàcaro, so it's no surprise that the room is a looker – metal and timber detailing, designer light fittings – the sharp wine list leans Italian and the service is charming. The modern food from Paolo Masciopinto is also familiar, echoing Sarti with a mix of the rustic (pappardelle with an excellent rabbit ragù) and the flamboyant (tiramisù sealed in a white chocolate sphere). A Josper oven is put to use with fish, perhaps rock flathead with a lemon and sorrel sauce, while stuzzichini, like a deconstructed vitello tonnato with anchovy mayo and pickled mushrooms, make Bar Carolina a postwork pit stop as well as a dinner destination. That's if you can get in – fashionable locals have already clocked that this one's a keeper.
44 Toorak Rd, South Yarra, (03) 9820 9774, barcarolina.com.au
2. Café Di Stasio
Di Stasio has witnessed almost three decades of food fashion and stood its ground. It remains, delightfully and defiantly, what it has always been: a classically-minded, linen-clothed, low-lit ristorante. Culinary standards are reliably high. Maltagliati is glossily textured, thrown in with tender calamari, radicchio and bright cuts of spring onion. Scallops – roasted, underneath parmesan, lemon, garlic and breadcrumbs – deliver the comforting joy of something simple done well. Proteins are excellent, from autumnal wild boar braised in white wine and braced with the bitterness of radicchio, to perfect saltimbocca. The millefoglie, with its layers of airy pastry, vanilla cream and caramelised apple, constitutes a lightly balanced end to the evening – unless you extend the evening with a Negroni at the adjacent, equally civilised Bar di Stasio.
31 Fitzroy St, St Kilda, (03) 9525 3999, distasio.com.au
3. Cicciolina
Unlike Cicciolina, the porn star-turned-politician, Cicciolina the restaurant has barely changed in 25 years. You still can't book. Everyone is happy to wait over surprisingly good cocktails in the grungy back bar. And once you're seated in black swivel chairs or on the banquette, entrée stalwarts, like silky brains wrapped in prosciutto or creamy blue swimmer crab soufflé, are the best way to start. Continue with the seasonal blackboard menu – perhaps orecchiette cupping salty capers, anchovies and prawns, or hearty cacciucco, an Italian stew jammed with more seafood than liquid. The 'self-centred chocolate pudding' is worth the 20-minute wait, while a lemon brulée is all brittle caramel and jammy berries. You'll quickly come to love the nude sketches and rear public-turned-private toilets: all part of the charm, and why locals return time and again to their beloved Cicc.
130 Acland St, St Kilda, (03) 9525 3333, cicciolina.com.au
4. Emilia
The increasing regional specialisation of Italian restaurants in Melbourne is in full play at Emilia, where the focus is on Emilia- Romagna. In the pink terrazzo-floored laneway dining room you're transported to Italy's north via lard-laced gnocco fritto, ready to be smeared and stuffed with mortadella mousse and a changing selection of cured meats. There's proper northern tagliatelle al ragù with Parmigiano-Reggiano and delicate slices of beef drizzled in fine balsamic vinegar from Modena. It's only when chefs Francesco Rota and Luca Flammia venture outside the region that they sometimes fall short of the mark, as with a slightly bland spaghetti with spanner crab and Sardinian bottarga. The excellent wine list ranges across Italy and most of Europe with a few local options thrown in, too. Finish with the nostalgia of Vienetta with a boozy hot chocolate and brandy sauce.
Rear 360 Little Collins St, Melbourne, (03) 9670 7214, emiliamelbourne.com.au

5. Grossi Florentino
A meal upstairs at Florentino is more than the sum of its parts. It's an experience that begins with the ceremony of the Champagne trolley and ends with a take-home bag of coffee beans and biscotti. It's the professionalism of the service, honed over a lifetime, and the opulent setting of 85-year-old murals and chandeliers. For the most part, the food is a heightened experience, too. A lusty jumble of cuttlefish and cannellini beans comes draped in curls of salty-sweet lardo. Maltagliati di pane with bug meat and capers gets an umami punch from colatura. For dessert, a shiny sphere cracks to reveal peach foam, roast peach and prosecco jelly. And while the restaurant will leave your wallet lighter, downstairs you can dine on Tuscan-style steaks and pasta in the Grill, or slip in for coffee, wine and cocktails in the Cellar Bar, where the same sense of Italian hospitality prevails.
80 Bourke St, Melbourne, (03) 9662 1811, grossiflorentino.com
6. Il Bàcaro
Il Bàcaro remains one of the city's most stylish diners nearly 25 years on. Glamorous and compact, its Venetian blinds screen the wood-panelled dining room from the street. The restaurant combines well-honed, personable service and a well-priced, hefty Italian-accented wine list with Italian classics given an occasional twist. Calamari fritti, and rabbit tortellini in a spring-onion broth play it straight while other dishes – wagyu carpaccio with black-garlic mayo and sugary crisps, an agave cheesecake with mildly annoying pop-rocks – feature playful moves, some of which land better than others. A note-perfect suckling pig served with an intense black pudding crumble speaks to the solidity of the kitchen. It's steady stuff but, combined with an exacting attention to detail and a true sense of hospitality, Il Bàcaro is anything but business as usual.
168-170 Little Collins St, Melbourne, (03) 9654 6778, ilbacaro.com.au
7. Osteria Ilaria
So lightning can strike twice. In just over a year Osteria Ilaria has risen to the challenge set by its all-conquering next-door sibling Tipo 00 and doubled down on the pan-Italian promise. It already has its rusted-on classics – the charry whole baby octopus dramatically splayed over a spicy 'nduja base, the slippery tubes of paccheri with prawns, tomato and sorrel. But while Tipo is busy worshipping the classic pasta gods, Ilaria might be busting out the left-field move of a carbonara with Jerusalem artichoke and cured egg yolk. Chef Andreas Papadakis has a rare knack for serving inventive Latin food without betraying its rustic roots. From kingfish crudo licked with a oyster and finger lime emulsion to the roasted duck in a fruity hazelnut sauce, it's original yet simpatico. The well-travelled, small producer-focused wine list invites lingering. Join the queue.
367 Little Bourke St, Melbourne, (03) 9642 2287, osteriailaria.com

8. Rosa's Canteen
There's something a bit Through the Looking Glass about Rosa's Canteen. Push past the office-like environs and then suddenly you're warmly welcomed into an L-shaped dining room. Wraparound windows frame fat-leaved trees and a small open kitchen forms the palpable heartbeat. Soak up the atmosphere with a refreshing Hugo (mint, prosecco and elderflower), nibble on bread with olive oil made from Victorian olives then dive into the compact but lavish Sicilian menu. A Caprese salad features butter-soft mozzarella, as well as candy-sweet tomatoes from owner Rosa Mitchell's garden. Calamari is wafer thin, chilli and fennel salt adding smoke and heat. Pasta is next level – pappardelle with rabbit and porcini ragù tastes like autumn – while golden-hued spatchcock sits under a fruity canopy of olives and capers. Finish with an amaro and a smile on your face.
Level 1, cnr Little Bourke & Thomson sts, Melbourne, (03) 9602 5491, rosascanteen.com.au
9. Rosetta
You are in Melbourne in the 21st century – there's the river, after all, and an umbrella next to the bathers in your bag – but Rosetta's velvet upholstery, glowing chandeliers and ruched curtains suggest other places and times, and after a glass of Champagne, it's easy to slip into a mythical mid-century Italy when glamour was attainable, even if only in the movies. The theatre and opulence flows over to the menu, a capacious spread of delicate raw dishes, lavish wood-roasted meats, and pasta hand-formed in the basement. You might eat raw kingfish lolling under candied zest or fennel-studded salami cosseted with airy gnocco fritto. The tagliolini with crab, garlic and chilli is a Rosetta classic: peasant pleasures interlaced with palace pomp. Desserts are no mere flourish: cakes and puddings are served with appropriate ceremony, including a tiramisù that's one of Crown's luckiest strikes.
Crown Complex, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, (03) 8648 1999, rosettarestaurant.com.au

10. Sarti
Everyone with a nonna knows not to mess with tradition, but disrupting tradition is exactly what Sarti's phenomenal five-layer take on tiramisù is all about. It swings from hot to cold, velvet to crunch in a single spoonful. Italian staff in short-sleeved gingham shirts and denim aprons share a similar playfulness. Casual but attentive, they pour prosecco at the bar and bottles of nebbiolo for an older crowd sat beneath arched windows overlooking Russell Place. Old Italian movies play on the rooftop terrace, a lovely spot for drinks and snacks, like delicate fritto misto, perhaps, or grilled zucchini with pistachio crumble. Pasta is plated with a generous hand: baked cannelloni bulging with rich pulled duck, deep-fried duck tongues, mushrooms and hazelnuts. It's not how nonna used to make it, but we're pretty sure she'd enjoy it.
6 Russell Pl, Melbourne, (03) 9639 7822, sartirestaurant.com.au
11. Sosta Cucina
This North Melbourne gem lifts the suburb's dining standards via seasonal Italian dishes with the occasional modern tweak. Staff are quick to spruik "offal of the day", perhaps sweetbreads served on cold potato salad brunoise with a vinegar kick, while an entrèe-sized pappardelle con ragu is rich enough to constitute a main course. Secondi cover proteins, with the Tuscan seafood and tomato soup with local shellfish – cacciucco alla Livornese – a standout. Traditional is the way to go with dessert, so order bombolini rather than a lemon semifreddo that tries a little too hard. The décor of terrazzo floor, crisp white tablecloths and sparkling chandeliers gives Sosta a maturity beyond its 11 years and while some staff don't do the wine list justice, you don't have to be an Italophile to appreciate the regions available by the half glass and the decanters that treat your Barolo just right.
12 Errol St, North Melbourne, (03) 9329 2882, sosta.com.au
12. Supermaxi
Supermaxi delivers family and date-friendly Italian fare with genuine, personable hospitality. Some come here to catch up over aperitivo at the bar that divides the terrazzo-floored, minimalist dining room, taking advantage of a drinks list that favours Italian wine and beer and offers a great selection of digestivi. Entrées make all the right comfort food moves: fingers of crumbed mozzarella with olive paste that stretch an arm's length, say, or cauliflower florets deep-fried to golden. Rolled-to-order pizze are quirkily misshapen and generously topped with great ingredients, and gnocchi Bolognaise tastes like nonna made it. It's easy to over-order from Rita Macali's menu, but the only regret you'll have is being too full to finish both the fried custard with honey-covered vanilla ice-cream and the torrone semifreddo that's like a nougat ice-cream cake.
305 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North, (03) 9482 2828, supermaxi.com.au

13. Tipo 00
When the world is devolving into a dystopian nightmare it's good to know Tipo 00 is there ready with a soul-warming plate of pasta and a glass of something interesting, most likely grown on Mount Etna. An island of solace from everyday cares, this always-rammed past bar has a preternatural sense of what people want. And what do they want exactly? A bowl of fried and braised Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips with goats' curd, a dish that squishes and crunches in all the right places, or a kingfish crudo with pops of salmon roe and the fermented sucker punch of black garlic. And pasta, of course. Casarecce with pork sausage enlivened by the subtle agrodolce touches of white wine and radicchio; fat ricotta tortellini enriched with a cloak of nettle purée and mascarpone. There are meat-based main courses, too, but we say choose carbs, choose life.
361 Little Bourke St, Melbourne, (03) 9942 3946, tipo00.com.au