Nobody's arguing that Melbourne needs more Italian restaurants. Why would they? We've got it covered already. Basta.
And then Project Forty Nine's mushroom and chestnut raviolo lands.
It's irresistible, this precisely made pasta enclosing oyster and Swiss brown mushrooms, earthy-sweet chestnuts, ricotta and parmesan. The palm-sized parcel is topped with a jumble of grey, white and pink oyster mushrooms and sits in a clear, dark porcini brodo, parmesan oil droplets glistening on the surface. Texture, seasoning, respect for the mushroom, embracing the season - it's all here.
It seems there is room for one more Italian restaurant after all.
Project Forty Nine has pedigree as well as addictive raviolo. It's the latest, yes, project from husband and wife team Rocco Esposito and Lisa Pidutti, who a few years back ran much-loved Wardens Food and Wine in Beechworth, in Victoria's north-east. Esposito also did a stretch looking after the wine at Vue de Monde.
The couple have a wine and produce store in Beechworth also called Project Forty Nine, and they make chardonnay under the same name. The converted warehouse building in Collingwood that's home to the street level Project Forty Nine restaurant also houses their sizeable, industrial-chic deli-café-wine store-events space called, you guessed it, Project Forty Nine.
Mushroom and chestnut raviolo with porcini brodo and parmesan oil.
There's method - and principle - behind the single banner. The Forty Nine refers to the address of the farm, about six kilometres out of Beechworth, where Esposito and Pidutti live with their two daughters, grow produce and make their wine. Embrace their Italian heritage. Keep it simple. Keep in touch with the seasons. It is, if you must, P49's spiritual home.
The restaurant brings that spirit to the city, creating their version of Italian regional cooking via Beechworth and its surrounds. It's not strictly Victoria High Country either - Esposito and Pidutti are too fond of Italian wine for starters - but there's usually a Beechworth element present, even if it's in the form of head chef Tim Newitt, a Beechworth native who started his career as an apprentice at Wardens.
Newitt's all for the Italian mantra of simplicity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. But he's also young and heading a kitchen for the first time and has access to dehydrators, water baths and other gadgetry, so things sometimes get trickier than strictly necessary.
Does the kingfish crudo, for instance, need mandarin gel and dehydrated olives and pickled fennel and rocket flowers? Not really. And a very good beef carpaccio - O'Connor's Angus, quickly seared, cut thick in medallions and served with ribbons of grilled zucchini and Reggiano - would be a complete dish without the custard flavoured with truffle paste.
Mostly, though, the restrained approach holds.
Table at Project Forty Nine.
The trout mantecato, for example, is a take on traditional baccalà mantecato with salt cod swapped for Harrietville trout. It's simple, classic stuff, the fish blitzed with stale bread and olive oil to a rich paste flavoured with lemon juice and parsley. The trout is sweeter, less salty and softer than cod and it gives the original a run for its money.
Then there's the salt-baked celeriac, the skin left on so the pieces hold their shape despite the flesh collapsing to a purée-like softness. It comes with sweet red cabbage poached in butter, the whole lot tossed with a mustard, vinegar, caper and grilled jalapeño dressing. It's impressively well balanced, with the celeriac skin adding appealing texture and chew.
Ox tongue actually benefits from (partial) sous-vide treatment. It's cooked slowly in a bag for almost a day before being peeled, thinly sliced and chucked quickly on the grill, then dressed with a sauce of vinegar, mustard and the cooking juices from the tongue. Thyme, clove and star anise are in on the act and a mustard-fruit purée adds a compelling sweet-sour note. You'll want to order it again.
And it's the kind of place you'll come back to. Not just for the ox tongue and the all-round user-friendly menu, but also for the service. Without being too hokey about it, there's a good dose of country hospitality here.
Project Forty Nine.
Will Rushford, another Beechworth native who worked at Wardens while Newitt was there, runs the front of house. The pair are now best mates who've worked together since and this, plus the history they share with their bosses, brings an ease and familiarity to P49 that's rare in a new restaurant. Rushford is engagingly enthusiastic about what's coming out of the kitchen, and his familiarity with Beechworth produce and producers, wine and winemakers, adds further ballast to the country-in-the-city story.
The room's good, too. Pidutti and Esposito collaborated with Elenberg Fraser (the architects responsible for Vue de Monde's design), both in the restaurant and in the larger, glass-fronted wine store and deli next door, to create a fit-out that's comfortable and familiar without being boring. The building's hard industrial features - high ceilings with exposed utilities painted white, brick walls, polished concrete floors, metal-framed windows - combine with luxurious touches such as pale timber panelling, Thonet chairs and a central marble and timber kitchen bar, and large photos of the Beechworth farm hang on the walls. They have the relaxed-elegant thing down pat.
Grilled octopus, salmoriglio, chilli and hazelnut.
There's elegance to the wine list, too. Sure, there's a regional bias: Rutherglen fortifieds from Campbells rub shoulders with Dal Zotto Col Fondo prosecco from the King Valley, Savaterre pinot noir from Beechworth and ugni blanc from Glenrowan maker Simão & Co. Project Forty Nine's chardonnay is available by the glass and bottle. But the list isn't just a five-page regional paean. Italy makes a strong showing, with fine supporting work from France and Spain, and good things from elsewhere in Australia (Hunter Valley sémillon from Brokenwood, for example). The regional agenda is clear if you're looking, but this is mainly about good wine at decent prices on a list deftly pulled together by someone who really knows their stuff.
This kind of cherry-picking is P49's thing. Take the risotto. It's made with Ferron rice cooked with Beechworth walnuts and crimson grapes, King River Gold washed-rind cheese and grilled, chopped pencil leeks: border-hopping recipe and ingredients, all playing happily together. The combination of the cheese, rind and all, nutty rice, acidic-sweet grapes and the earthiness of the nuts make this intense dish one to sigh longingly about days later.
Slow-cooked octopus is teamed with a classic salmoriglio (olive oil, lemon, garlic, oregano) that's cleverly finished with toasted hazelnuts and slivers of green and red chilli; lamb breast, also slow-cooked, is finished with a punchy, hits-all-the-bases combination of toasted pine nuts, fried rosemary, anchovies and olive oil. Mercy.
Bar at Project Forty Nine.
Come dessert time, the boundaries of simplicity can get stretched.
While there's no rule book prohibiting a dessert that combines a decent lemon curd with dehydrated meringue and three types of "soil" (coffee and chocolate; black olive; orange and fennel) from entering a space like this, it does feel as though it's turned up at the wrong party. This is especially true when it's standing next to an unadorned, beautifully constructed tiramisù that hits the mark simply via quality ingredients. No flash, no dazzle, all satisfaction.
Lemon curd with dehydrated meringue and "soil."
The fig leaf panna cotta lies somewhere in between. Made with buttermilk and mascarpone and flavoured with dehydrated fig leaves, it comes across - successfully - as both clean and rich. Splashed with the juices from the accompanying rhubarb and teamed with a hazelnut sablé crumb, it's a dish that gets a clear pass, even as it teeters on the border of overdressed.
Project Forty Nine never tries to feel like Beechworth. A warehouse in backstreet Collingwood would never carry it off, and anyway that's not the point. Lisa Pidutti and Rocco Esposito have taken the essence and attitude of their farm, mixed it with their Italian heritage and made it feel at home right where it is. Another Melbourne Italian restaurant? Yes, please.