Restaurant Reviews

Emilia, Melbourne restaurant review

The home of balsamic vinegar, lambrusco and the Ferrari is the focus of Emilia, where the Modenese cooking is the real deal, writes Michael Harden.

By Michael Harden
Co-owners Francesco Rota, Matteo Neviani and Luca Flammia
Tripe is one of the great room-dividing ingredients. Eat a substandard version and it's easy to make enemies with bovine stomach lining. But make contact with a specimen like the trippa alla Maremmana at Emilia and you'll understand instantly what all the fuss is about. Guts and glory.
Emilia's tripe - from Maremmana cattle, an Italian breed - is treated with care and skill, slowly simmered with onions and celery, emerging soft, tender and aromatic. It's then sliced into thin ribbons and sautéed with celery, onions, carrots and rosemary before being tossed in a sauce of tomatoes, cannellini beans, parmesan, olive oil, chilli and parsley.
It's a great dish, beautifully fortifying, deeply flavoured, with slippery-smooth textures and a degree of finesse that belies its apparent rusticity. It's one that'll have you signalling for more (house-baked) bread to mop up the sauce.
This tripe dish is both typical and atypical of the food on the menu at Emilia. It's typical in that it involves skilled and authentic technique and a devotion to great ingredients. It's atypical in that its lineage is Tuscan and so, strictly speaking, it sits outside Emilia's quite specific focus on the trattoria cuisine of Modena in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region.
Emilia was, until recently, known as Gills Diner. Owned by Chris Kerr and Con Christopoulos (The European, City Wine Shop, Kirk's Wine Bar et cetera), Gills always had a slight Italian accent but there was also a broader pan-European push on the menu. That began to change earlier this year when chefs Francesco Rota and Luca Flammia (Tea Rooms of Yarck, Da Noi) and front-of-house guy Matteo Neviani (Da Noi) came on board as co-owners and began making incremental changes, sharpening the menu's focus. Then in August, the restaurant closed for a two-week renovation and emerged in full Modena mode as the lovelier, more luxurious Emilia.
Emilia is both charming to look at and comfortable to be in. It's not a big surprise, given Christopoulos's involvement. The industrial bones have been retained, as has some of the tilework, the wood panelling and the wall of metal-framed windows (some painted over, some left clear) dividing the kitchen from the dining room.
The most obvious change in the look is the floor. At the restaurant entrance, full-height double doors open to reveal a stretch of beautiful musk-stick-pink terrazzo with "Emilia" inlaid in brass in cursive script. The pink terrazzo continues into the main dining area but in thin strips alternating with strips of cream terrazzo, creating a sort of nougat chequerboard effect. It manages to feel both homely and sophisticated, adding a nice dose of retro playfulness and a hint of Gina Lollobrigida to the room.
Emilia also has new timber tables (all made by Kerr), some draped in linen, others left bare, and a large round table in the centre of the room sporting an enormous flower arrangement. It's often stacked with produce featured on the menu, such as bundles of asparagus or broad beans. A collection of framed original art hangs on two walls. But best of all in a space that could once drive you away with its cacophony, highly effective sound baffling has been deployed, reducing the noise to a level as low, comfortable and attractive as the lighting.
The bakery-café section at the front of the business has similarly been retained but Modena-ised. It serves coffee, Italian pastries and house-baked rolls stuffed with the likes of porchetta, mustard fruits and salsa verde during the day, and morphs into a bar at night. A great place for an aperitivo.
The bakery supplies the restaurant's bread and, if you get lucky, a slice or two of soft, salty pork focaccia made with dough spiked with rosemary and ciccioli ("crumbs" of leftover pieces of pork that have been cooked, dried and ground). It's the sort of gratis pre-dinner treat that makes the pulse quicken with anticipation.
Next comes the lovely tripe (pictured above), but also salumi, a good-looking, artfully jumbled pile of sliced cured meat - perhaps bresaola, coppa, salami, prosciutto and speck, mostly locally made - plus a robust mortadella mousse (mortadella blended with fresh ricotta) and a chicken liver pâté. The meat comes with the saltily delicious gnocco fritto - Modenese pastry pillows made from a mix of flour, pork fat and yeast cut into squares and puffed up in the deep-fryer.
There's also a carpaccio, thickly sliced, briefly seared on one side and served with sharp, honeycomb-like parmesan wafers, noticeably peppery rocket and dollops of creamy parmesan sauce. The bracing, texturally interesting salad of thinly sliced fresh artichokes and cauliflower, dressed with garlic and bay lemon juice and finished with polenta crumbs, is also worth seeking out.
The pasta is all handmade and, not surprisingly given the Modenese focus, includes classic stuffed pasta, perhaps spinach and ricotta ravioli served with a sage butter sauce or a pumpkin version with walnuts and Gorgonzola.
But the list might also include a superb semolina cavatelli tossed with mussels, clams and intense semi-dried cherry tomatoes, a dash of chilli and a vibrant rocket pesto, or an equally impressive gnocchi made from chickpea flour and ricotta that comes with crumbled pork and fennel sausage and generous shreds of dark green, wilted cime di rapa.
There's also a very good tagliatelle with a slightly chunky pork and beef Bolognese, a dish that, once again, steps slightly outside the regional boundaries but is again worth the detour.
The wine list also plays it a little fluid with the Modena thing, although regional Italian focus will apparently come more seriously into play in the coming months. At present, Italian wines get the best showing but they come from all points - carricante from Sicily, arneis from Piedmont, Tuscan sangiovese, primitivo from Puglia - with only a couple from Emilia-Romagna: an obligatory lambrusco (so good with the cured meat) and a sangiovese.
There's a strong selection of Australian - especially Victorian - wines made with Italian grape varieties, such as Save Our Souls sagrantino from Mildura and Billy Button vermentino from the Ovens Valley. It's not a lengthy list but it's one with plenty of good stuff to drink at reasonably friendly prices.
Pricing is generally friendly across the board at Emilia, with the menu topping out in the mid-30s for the meat/fish secondi section of the menu. There you might find brilliant lamb shanks, cooked slowly to the perfect degree of tender surrender via an ageless recipe that includes anchovies, wine, vinegar and honey.
The shank comes with sautéed artichokes, a pairing that is even further improved by a side order of classic crunchy roasted potatoes.
Not so successful is a pork fillet dish, cooked sous-vide so it's pink but blandly textured, wrapped in pancetta and teamed with sour cherries and mash. Perhaps the most restauranty dish on the menu in both execution and plating, it felt like an escapee from another diner, moonlighting at this one while it tries to come to terms with who it really is.
You could come to Emilia just for the desserts, particularly if you're after lovingly rendered classics played authentic, retro, pretty and not too sweet.
They often contain a hefty dose of booze, and nuts play a central role - hazel, pistachio, almond, pine. If you're with a group and order several sweet things to share, they land like a 1950s fashion parade, all pastel colours and frilly embellishments.
There's the torta Barozzi, a classic of the region, featuring a flourless cake made with slightly burnt almonds and pine nuts that have been blitzed, then mixed with ground coffee, dark chocolate and butter. The version here is served with sour cherries soaked in balsamic vinegar and comes topped with a torn sheet of cooking foil, a reference to how the cake was traditionally baked in foil-lined pans then turned upside down so the foil needed to be torn away to get to the cake.
The lovely looking "semifreddo Mediterraneo", all creams and pinks and oranges, is based on a classic honey, cream and eggwhite semifreddo studded with almond and pistachio praline and candied citrus peel. It's served with grapefruit and orange segments and a sauce made with mugo pine extract.
Add the pretty "Vienetta 2015", a multi-pronged attack of dark and milk chocolate that includes ricotta chocolate mousse, bitter-chocolate biscuits, hot brandy and chocolate sauce and a milk chocolate and hazelnut semifreddo, or the lovely booze-sodden version of rhum baba with just a slight hint of lemon in the Chantilly-like cream, and there are plenty of reasons why Emilia might just lodge itself on the radar of the dessert crowd.
Those familiar with Gills Diner might have to rack their brains to figure out how things have changed physically at Emilia, so seamlessly has the new look colonised the old. The more obvious difference has been the marked shift in gears in the kitchen that has so changed the restaurant's focus, intent and regionality. Emilia has certainly not forgotten the crowd-pleasing talents of its predecessor but it has redefined them and in doing so has shifted the crowd-pleasing to a whole new level.