On the back of Sarti's tri-fold menu there's a collage of black-and-white photos of chef/co-owner Riccardo Momesso's family. Food is a common theme in all of them, whether it's his mother working the vegie patch, a young Momesso and his father posed with guns and the spoils of a hunting trip, or a crowded family dinner, the white-clothed table busy with plates of food and bottles of wine and water.
Inside the menu, all this old-school nostalgia is dislodged by the likes of "rocket pebbles", prawn salami, tartare foam, 'nduja crumble and smoked tomato. It's this tension between the traditional and the modern, the Calabrian and the Australian, that's making Sarti one of the most interesting and exciting places to eat in Melbourne right now. (Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I must come clean with you upfront: I'm co-authoring Momesso's forthcoming book, so obviously I'm not flying under the radar at Sarti, but trust me, I'm far from alone in singing its praises).
The balance between modern and traditional is echoed in Sarti's dining room. On one wall there are more of the family photos, blown up to mural size; a series of lovely arched windows overlooking Russell Place tap into the building's history. A string of oversized blown-glass chillies hanging at the top of the entrance stairs is a nod to the chef's Calabrian background, in which chilli is a non-negotiable staple. The sleek white-topped central bar with its stainless-steel shelving stacked with wine offers the best sightlines in a room that's all about that particular sleek Euro-Melbourne style that has seduced the city.
The balancing act continues with the split-level dining room and the excellent outdoor terrace, which is atmospherically hemmed in by looming city buildings and soon to be spruced up. Metal bread baskets are softened by red gingham, tables are overlaid with white linen and brown paper, and the sharp, charming service - from a handsome team led with ultra-affable style by co-owner Joe Mammone - would be as at home in a traditional Italian bistro as it would in a high-end diner.
Mammone (who also co-owns Sarti's near neighbour Il Bàcaro) is also responsible for Sarti's wine list, and it's a smart, well-focused document with a penchant for familiar boutique Australian names while devoting several pages to Italian labels (divided into "north", "central" and "south") at a pleasingly democratic range of prices. If you're into conversations about Italian wine, you'll get a good one here from many of the staff - they have a zeal about the Italian stuff that hints at the freshly converted.
There's zeal in Riccardo Momesso's cooking too. He's been in the kitchen at Sarti for more than three years now and his approach of combining his Calabrian roots with his love of contemporary cooking techniques has become more focused and precise with every menu. Certainly, given the molecular flavour combinations (emu, Gorgonzola, candied walnuts) and ingredients (soft-shell crab, farmed Tasmanian wallaby) no one's going to be mistaking Sarti for a classic Italian ristorante, but the thoroughly modern food has its soul firmly rooted in Calabrian soil.
Momesso's most playful side comes out in his dozen or so stuzzichini. "Sarti sushi 2010" almost borders on the loopy, emerging as nori rolls stuffed with the earthy black Venere rice moulded around shreds of smoked eel. On top of each roll is a tiny "salad" of shredded mud crab meat and celery, while sitting next to them is a dark brown curl of pickled ginger, sweet and sour and flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom. Almost impossibly, it works. The smoky, earthy flavours somehow register as clearly Italian and the black rice has a slight risotto-ish crunch, while the sweetness of the crab meat works a treat with the eel and rice.
There are other moments of beauty and madness too. Piave-filled ravioli are teamed with shreds of slippery Jack mushrooms, porcini purée and fresh blueberries. A richly coloured, buttery textured fillet of emu shares a plate with a slightly sweet Gorgonzola "spuma" (read: foam), some crushed candied walnuts and a perfectly restrained sprinkle of powerful Tasmanian pepperberries. Crystal Bay prawns are chopped into chunks, mixed with a paste made from blitzed blue-eye, slightly hot capsicum paste and a little cream before being rolled into salami shapes and slowly poached. Cut into slices and sautéed, this "salami" is a wonder of springy texture and sprightly, chilli-scented flavour and is brilliantly teamed with tiny black flying fish roe and slices of pickled baby cucumber.
There's more textural fun to be had with a dish of soft-shell crab that's coated in a traditional Calabrian batter of cornflour and mineral water and deep-fried before being tossed with a "peperoni" made from a whole mess of different roasted chillies, some yellow and green, others red, that provide a pleasing variety of heat levels. There's also a "crumble" made from ground and fried 'nduja, Calabria's fiery, almost rillettes-like fatty pork and chilli salami/condiment, with further crunch and a little salty fishiness from fried and crumbled whitebait.
At times, there can be a little too much going on. The "rocket pebbles" - a dark pea-like accompaniment to a salad of rare-cooked chunks of tuna, borlotti beans and lovely little intense, salty flakes of dehydrated olives - look pretty enough but almost seem like one step too many.
There are, however, no missteps with an attractive dish of slow-cooked egg that you get to mix through a combination of nut-like dried broad beans, corn kernels, farro, flecks of pancetta and ultra-thin slices of bread mixed with squid ink and a little truffle oil and reshaped so that it looks like a truffle. It's an amusing and surprisingly successful use of the often-horrific truffle oil.
There's also interest away from the stuzzichini, such as spinach tortelli filled with rich and sweet wild rabbit meat and sitting in a pale brown rabbit broth with a Jerusalem artichoke purée and roasted and crushed hazelnuts, or the venison-like wallaby, lean and powerful and teamed with soft, fresh peanuts, turnip purée and slippery Jack mushrooms. Or a duck breast and a crumbed, deep-fried duck leg served with cubes of consommé jelly, a stinging nettle purée of the deepest green and slices of purple congo potato.
The traditional/modern straddling continues with dessert: take the Monte Bianco 2010, an Italian white chocolate and chestnut affair that at Sarti takes the form of a smooth, shiny dome of white chocolate over a chestnut mousse sitting next to a couple of smaller domes of espresso jelly, a small scoop of whisky ice-cream and some candied chestnuts. The classic version had its origins in the Italian snowfields and this one looks something like a series of scale-model moguls.
The best thing about the food at Sarti is that, though it can sometimes read - and even look - fantastical, it never feels out of control. There's good cooking knowledge and intelligence at work here, accompanied by an endearing sense of playfulness and imagination. But best of all it feels solidly rooted in something traditional, and that, more than anything, makes you feel you're in safe hands.
PHOTOGRAPHY MARCEL AUCAR
This article is from the November 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.