Getting teary over a pea frittata might not fall within the boundaries of acceptable human behaviour, but extenuating circumstances can provide some justification. The circumstance (and justification) in this case is the return of Rosa's Kitchen - cook and author Rosa Mitchell's moveable Italian feast - to Melbourne's CBD after a few years in Williamstown. And with the return of the Sicilian-influenced restaurant comes a parade of the fiercely seasonal, wonderfully comforting dishes that many city slickers have been pining for since Mitchell upped stumps at Flinders Lane's Journal Canteen in 2010.
Mitchell's food has always packed an emotional punch. Her cooking is so devoid of artifice and ego that it actually embodies the overused term "home-style" and presents as if it's been cooked with more than a little love and affection. When you haven't had access to that kind of cooking for a while and it lands in front of you again, say in the form of "Rosa's antipasto", getting a little misty-eyed is not a completely inappropriate reaction.
As in former incarnations, Rosa's antipasto changes constantly, comes in two sizes, and includes around nine different items. There's always frittata, though not always made with peas (when it is, though, they're slow-cooked and then pan-fried before joining forces with free-range eggs and parmesan). Sometimes it might feature chicory or zucchini or perhaps wild greens from Mitchell's farm in Yandoit, central Victoria.
Joining the frittata will usually be some sort of fritter, perhaps cauliflower that has been blanched until soft and then mixed with parmesan, parsley, garlic, flour and eggs before being formed into rustic little morsels and pan-fried to golden brown in olive oil. There'll be slices of salami too, at present a fennel and garlic number but later in the year, it'll be coming from a guy in Daylesford who'll make salami for the restaurant to Mitchell's family recipe.
You might also get a little block of ricotta that's dipped in egg, salted and then fried, slices of grilled eggplant flavoured with balsamic vinegar, garlic and basil, a little panzanella salad with capers and celery hearts joining the red wine vinegar-dressed tomatoes and bread, some tangy house-pickled eggplant and strips of zucchini that have been salted and then dressed with garlic, mint, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
It looks great, this plate of fritters and pickles, meats and olives and, like Rosa's Kitchen itself, it's reassuringly familiar and recognisable, even if the mix and the setting have been changed.
The familiar certainly plays a role in Mitchell's ever-cluey choice of CBD business partners. Her last city venture had Con Christopoulos in the mix while this time she's teamed up with Peter Bartholomew and David Mackintosh (of the MoVida group and Pei Modern) in a Punch Lane space that once housed old-school Italian restaurant Lucattini's.
It's a great position with the wider than usual city laneway - lined on one side with residential townhouses - delivering heaps more space and light than the usual dingy dumpster-strewn cliché. And while the group's refurb of the old restaurant has been thorough, it has avoided any major (and expensive) structural work, choosing instead to retain some cute design details from Lucattini's like a red neon "Cucina Italiana" sign that beckons people down the lane from Little Bourke Street and the three floor-to-ceiling peak-arched windows at the front that throw light into the compact space.
Inside, it's all pared back and clutter-free with polished concrete floors and whitewashed brick walls, a mix of timber and black-topped plywood tables and upholstered timber chairs painted in black, yellow and red. The lighting, mostly via wall lamps with oversized bulbs, is simple and effective, while the noise levels are surprisingly well-managed for a place with so many hard surfaces. It feels homey without being cloyingly so.
The compact menu (four pastas, five main courses) is scribbled on long, narrow blackboards that run down both sides of the room at ceiling height and there are wine and cocktail specials on another blackboard over the bar that extends from the kitchen.
There's a noticeable breadth to the drinks offering here compared with past versions of Rosa's Kitchen. At one point, the whole list could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Now there are several pages of wine, alongside lists of cocktails, beer, aperitivi and digestivi. Much of the credit for the expansion can be laid at the feet of sommelier Lazlo Evenhuis (ex-Crimean, Gill's Diner) who has come on board to look after the booze and play maître d'.
He's a good fit service-wise and his low-key charm and unflappable demeanour seem to have been adopted by the rest of the staff as the house style. Evenhuis's wine list is similarly simpático with the whole feel of Rosa's. It's a reasonably priced collection of wines from Italy and Australia that leans towards the Italian varieties and boutique producers without being annoyingly dogmatic about either. Keeping with the Sicilian heritage of the food, the wine list also features Sicilian wine and native grapes with excellent names such as zibibbo and catarratto.
There are excellent names on the food menu, too. Orecchiette alla Trapanese is sauced with a Sicilian-style pesto with almonds as a base rather than pine nuts. It's a brilliant combination, lighter and less oily than classic pesto, the blanched almonds, basil and garlic blended with fresh ripe tomatoes that have been pulsed to a pulp. It's then tossed with the pasta and topped with toasted breadcrumbs. The tomatoes give the sauce a wonderful clean acidity while the breadcrumbs add further textural joy to the slightly chewy orecchiette.
It's this sort of cooking that Mitchell and her head chef Lucy David (ex-Coda, Pei Modern) do so well: rustic, with a limited number of ingredients that achieve a beautiful, elegant balance.
There's more of that to be had with the plump yellow ravioli (plenty of yolks involved, obviously) stuffed with a mix of peeled and roasted eggplant, onion, tomato, basil and parmesan that's been blended to a smooth, richly flavoured paste. The ravioli are then tossed with a fresh tomato sauce (or will be until tomato season is over when, as per tradition, the preserved tomatoes will be called into service) that adds sweet acidic notes to the earthy eggplant ones.
There are plenty of good times for carnivores, too, including cotoletta, a bashed-out piece of yearling beef dipped in egg and a mixture of breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley and garlic. It's pan-fried and served with a chunky, tangily dressed cucumber, tomato and onion salad. Excellent beef tongue that's poached in a broth containing carrot, celery and onion and served> with kipfler potatoes tossed in salsa verde shows that Mitchell has lost none of her skill with offal.
Best of all, though, is the bistecca al salmoriglio, where two pieces of Scotch are quickly grilled and then dipped in the salmoriglio marinade - a deep-flavoured mix of olive oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic and oregano - and then served with salty roast potatoes. Others might give best-in-show to the calamari, stuffed with a mixture of chopped up wings and tentacles, leeks, pan-fried breadcrumbs and capers before being tossed on the grill then finished in a pan with white wine, tomato and onion, and served with a side of very garlicky green beans.
Longtime fans can breathe a sigh of relief (and perhaps briefly tear-up again at the news) that the cannoli have not been lost in the various moves. They still deliver the same brittle, shattering pastry case filled with whipped ricotta flavoured with Yandoit honey, sugar, Marsala and lemon zest, with the ends dipped in toasted and crushed pistachio. A classic of its kind.
Ricotta's affinity with dessert also comes to the fore in a lemon ricotta cake, full of almond meal, not too sweet, and perfect with the stovetop coffee that has been a Rosa's Kitchen signature since the Flinders Lane days.
Fans of Sicilian sweet stuff and seasonal fruit should also keep an eye out for the custard-filled tart that's a fixture on the dessert menu. For a brief time recently it featured mulberries from Mitchell's farm, and it may also include peaches or figs from the same source. It all depends, as with the rest of the menu, on the season.
It's great to see Rosa's Kitchen back in its spiritual home but what's even better is that it seems to have shaken off the kind of temporary, pop-up feel it's trailed with it in the past. There's a more permanent, more grounded persona at this Punch Lane incarnation that can only come from all the elements being in sync. It's there with the front of house, with the bar and wine list that are no longer minor supporting characters, and it's certainly there with the food - perfect for urban dwellers in search of a little country heart. And really, it's just great to have Rosa Mitchell back, even if it does make you a little emotional.