Restaurant Reviews

Delizia Cucina, Melbourne restaurant review

In an area short on fine dining, a defiant restaurant is bucking the trend. Soulful cooking, chic room... Is Delizia the best in the west?

By John Lethlean
This restaurant has closed.
There is no less blunt way of saying it: Melbourne's western suburbs are a diner's desert. Sure, you've got your super-authentic Vietnamese cafés and pho houses of Footscray, about as close as you'll get to Ho Chi Minh City without boarding a Jetstar flight. Some quirky little cafés and simple bistros in the newly fashionable and defiantly artsy Yarraville. And maybe the odd gastropub of sorts in Williamstown, a beautiful bayside village that proves beyond doubt any nexus between affluence and good eating out is imaginary (as if you needed any proof).
But, by and large, foodies on a mission aren't clogging Footscray Road or the West Gate Bridge. Which probably makes Delizia Cucina's location a stroke of genius. Low rents (compared to the inner-east and Port Phillip suburbs), an increasingly affluent local client base heady on the paper profits of their recently revalued real estate, and a community starved for quality and innovation when it comes to food and wine.
Delizia would, quite frankly, kill it in any location that qualified as inner Melbourne, such is the undeniable strength of its combined food/wine/service and amenity. Out here, it may just lay claim to being the best restaurant the west has ever had. Yet it's a simple affair; a double-fronted one-time shop in a developing street in Seddon with a few tables on the footpath and a little servery area to one side for the various bits and pieces the business retails, such as preserves and breads. It's been a restaurant for some years now - in fact the very talented Simon Arkless, of Comme, ran this very place as The Elbow Room earlier this decade before selling and joining the van Haandels.
Richenda Pritchard and Deborah Cole, the two ex-Florentino alums behind Delizia (one in the kitchen, the other on the floor) liked the location but gutted and rebuilt the restaurant to suit themselves anyway, with the help of Cole's architect partner. They wanted a big, semi-open kitchen as the engine room and a clean look for the dining area: simple, uncluttered furnishings but with a few quirky bits of food and wine ephemera, too. Elegant tailoring that doesn't shout about itself.
This is a place run by people who care, quite passionately, about produce and eating. What pleases so much is the lack of compromise brought to the project. With a new venture, and money at risk in an area with no track record for contemporary dining, it might so easily have been left to play-safe tactics. Having eaten here a couple of times now, I get the impression Pritchard could turn out an osso buco with polenta and gremolata or calamari fritti on rocket with aïoli in her sleep. Her menu and the scope of its ambition provide reasons to be cheerful and, clearly, the district was ready for it.
You sit at a high-backed leather banquette; the concrete-finish table is bare but the accessories so right. White linen, good glassware, cutlery and crockery, sea salt in resin cellars and snazzy bottles for the olive oil.
With the menu comes Cole's wine list; again, it's something that takes you by surprise. Sensible price spread, good value for money (mostly), all the right varieties from all the right regions and a nice balance of Old World against the Anzac domination. It's the work of a wine enthusiast with a finger on the pulse.
With a mix of modern Italian ideas and Northern African spices, you might be forgiven for expecting rusticity, instead the food is measured, finessed and presented in a contemporary manner. Above and beyond that, it incorporates clever ideas with their roots in great flavour combinations.
The wagyu bresaola, for example; slices of the heavily marbled, ruby red beef layered over a pungent and seductive purée of taleggio and white bean, laced with a little golden oil. Providing textural foil, whole cannellini tossed with parsley are scattered with crazy spokes of house-made grissini like a smashed bicycle wheel.
Or the wafers of kingfish with the curing agents of grappa, orange and saffron. Randomly set across the fish slices is a salad of fennel, cucumber, red onion, baby herbs and tiny capers, for crunch and salt and cool relief. A crostini wafer set with a mound of Moreton Bay bug tartare is velvet-like in the mouth, an almost Japanese textural twist.
The lambs' brains, pan-fried in a brown butter with fresh thyme, are crusted in cumin and coriander seed; each lobe is scattered with diced bacon, and wafers of caramelised green apple lurk randomly. Providing the right relief is a celeriac rémoulade, all cool crunch, garnished with dark micro herbs including beetroot and shiso. It is profoundly satisfying.
Naturally, there is a pasta section where you'll find things like puréed veal tortellini, made with thin sheets of dough, tossed in a sage butter and served with what the chef calls "porcini pesto", a bit of a play on the basil version and, in truth, more a pungent brown sauce based on the Italian mushrooms than anything else.
Of the mains, one of the most impressive has been a half duck, roasted dark and crisp with a honey and star anise rub. Beneath is a carb mattress of braised pearl barley with a moat of sour cherry sauce and marbles of preserved cherries. It's not haute but it's hot.
A fat and gelatinous braised beef cheek is served on a trampoline of semolina gnocchi with hints of nutmeg and parmesan surrounded by a sauce based on red-wine braising liquids rich with cinnamon. On top of the cheek, a pea mash as green as envy.
And a reworking of that Lygon Street staple vitello scaloppine sees really excellent escalopes of white veal tossed in a tangy sage, white wine and butter sauce with plenty of parsley before a healthy portion of slippery jack mushrooms is added, par for the seasonal course. It's all plated with a base of cavolo nero and a garnishing of crisp pancetta wafers.
All this happens as you'd expect and want it. Cole, whose face will be familiar to most Florentino regulars, manages the floor and the service as if she were still at Victoria's most expensive (and polished) Italian. In other words, she delivers bang for your buck.
Of the 11 desserts at the tail end, there's a thick triangle of silken manuka honey parfait jammed between layers of walnut baklava, with more golden honey on the plate and a scattering of pistachio praline. There's a disc of chocolate fondant cake capped with a creamy orb of Pedro Ximénez ice-cream circled by a syrup of fig and dates macerated in the Spanish fortified wine.
And there is an outstanding cylinder of vanilla rice custard - or pudding - its surface given the sugar-and-blowtorch treatment providing a thin, golden toffee crunch. It's served with a combo of not-too-sweet poached rhubarb and halved strawberries. It's simple stuff but it's done oh-so well.
You can just tell, with everything Pritchard cooks, that her audience is the food-literate, not the mass market. And like just about everything else with this gastro-beacon, they have got the pitch just right.
For anybody interested in imaginative, rootsy cooking that makes no concessions to its geographical location and rises to the standards of those who love - and know - food, Delizia Cucina presents a very compelling case of 'go west'.