Now, repeat after me: en-doo-ya. 'Nduja. It's the exuberantly fiery, soft and spreadable pork sausage from Calabria you may have noticed cropping up on menus around town in recent years and a contender for "It" ingredient status. This is thanks to a few local producers (our steel-trap food laws make importing the stuff legally impossible) and the slow yet inexorable shift on the dining scene that's seeing generic Aussie-Italian restaurants giving way to more regionally focused places brimming with new, site-specific flavours and ingredients. Whatever the reason for its appearance, 'nduja is so good it should come with an addiction warning.
That it's on the menu at Valentino, chef Riccardo Momesso's latest venture, is not so surprising given the restaurant's subtitle: "A Calabrian Kitchen". Momesso's family background is Calabrese and his new restaurant reflects not just these Italian roots, but also the kind of food his mum used to cook when he was growing up on a farm in Broadmeadows, Victoria. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote a book with Momesso in 2012 about his take on traditional Calabrian cooking, including that of his mother's, and along the way discovered - and developed a deathless affection for - 'nduja).
At Valentino, the spreadable sausage is available in a couple of different guises. In one, it arrives as a snack, part of an extraordinary range of antipasti that takes up almost half the menu and is simply presented with toasted ciabatta. Its paste-like texture and terracotta colour are quite beautiful in themselves, but it's the rich, smoky pork flavour, followed by a long, slow (and close to eye-watering) burn that seal it. Teamed with the crunch of the toast, it makes for a perfect match with one of the Calabrian-style aperitivi (like the Maestro Tony, a bittersweet mix of dry vermouth, liquorice liqueur and sparkling bergamot soda) being mixed behind Valentino's marble-topped front bar.
Momesso also puts 'nduja on pizza, dotting it sparingly about with a kicking, deep-flavoured tomato sauce and a restrained amount of mozzarella. Heated, the 'nduja comes across a little less fiery than at room temperature but still manages a decent chilli hit that keeps it centrestage yet sharing the limelight.
It's actually the pizza bases at Valentino that draw much of the attention. Channelling traditional Calabrian bread dough - a minimal yeast-to-flour ratio, a slow proving process (24 to 30 hours) - the bases emerge from the twin-deck Moretti thin but not biscuity, chewy but not heavy, with a honeycomb-like interior that makes for wonderfully light eating. Combined with a rollcall of sparingly used ingredients, from cime di rapa and homemade sausage to provolone and eggplant, and a chequerboard method of cutting that makes each piece a two-bite morsel, Valentino's pizze are already edging their way into the tightly held league of Melbourne's best.
Those familiar with Riccardo Momesso's more complex work at Sarti might think that the food he's cooking at Valentino represents the culinary equivalent of a tree-change as he trades prawn carpaccio with mandarin oil for the more rustic pleasures of pizza and hand-cut pasta.
But Momesso has always had a knack both for spotting a trend and for putting that trend in the context of his culinary roots. He did it with sustainable seafood at SOS, with a nod to the molecular at Sarti and now he's doing it at the first venture where he's truly front and centre. That the latest trend he's tapped - Italian restaurants becoming regionally specific - fits so seamlessly with his background it seems to be one of those "right place, right time" moments, serendipitous for him as well as the diners in his new Hawksburn digs.
And the digs at Valentino are big. With high ceilings, polished-concrete floors, and a lack of any soft surfaces apart from the leather upholstered banquettes and bar stools (admirably wide-seated and comfortable), it's a noisy room when it's busy. But the space has been broken up into various configurations - including an impressive round communal table overhung with a string of oversized glass red chillies by Melbourne artist Miles Johnson - that stop it from feeling cavernous.
Add a dark-grey ceiling, white stucco walls sparingly decorated with the odd deer antler or row of bottles of house-made tomato sauce, ubiquitous bare bulbs dangling from artfully tangled cords and kindly lighting (unless you're facing the open kitchen and its fluorescent glare), and there you have a casually stylish space. It meets the flexibility brief (easily used as a bar, café, restaurant, pizzeria) necessary for any smart suburban local wanting to get ahead in life.
One of the best design features in the room comes from the marble used for both bars (regular and kitchen), pizza station and the glassed-in antipasto bar. It's white, shot through with heavy black veins that give it the appearance of a charcoal sketch on parchment - elegant, raw and beautiful. It's particularly effective as a backdrop for the antipasti that's laid out like you'd see in Calabrian bars, in cut-glass bowls, jars, bottles and on vintage plates, so you can walk up for a snoop at what's available before making any ordering decisions.
They're not easy decisions, though irresistible combinations like maccu di fave, a wonderful hummus-like purée made from dried fava beans, spruced up with a little chilli powder, studded with pieces of sautéed prawns and topped with shaved pecorino, make things a little easier. The sweet prawns, salty cheese and earthy purée, plus the generous dash of grassy olive oil come together with great and comforting harmony.
Then there's the caponata, a dish that riffs on Sicilian tradition with cocoa powder, orange juice, tomato paste, red wine vinegar, raisins and pine nuts in the mix along with the eggplant, resulting in a combination that's soft and slippery, richly sweet and satisfyingly savoury. Or grey ghost mushrooms, lovely little wild morsels that retain some texture even after being roasted in the pizza oven with olive oil and finished with garlic, parsley, red wine vinegar and toasted breadcrumbs. Or baby octopus, deep-flavoured and stained red from being cooked in wine and red onion, teamed with boiled, garlicky King Edward potatoes. Or floured and fried whitebait served with red chicory (grown by Momesso patriarch Tony) and superb, house-pickled green tomatoes. Or local sardines, fried and then marinated in a mixture of vinegar, olive oil, pine nuts, sultanas, zucchini, chilli and mint.
Adding another tier to the decision-making conundrum is the fact the menu changes every day, so not ordering Uncle Rocky's peppers (bullhorns, grown by a relative in Mildura, roasted with salt, olive oil, garlic vinegar and mint) may mean you won't get the chance to try them for some time.
Still, there's plenty at Valentino to bolster against such a loss. Some comfort, but perhaps not enough yet, comes from the compact, reasonably priced wine list of Italian and Victorian labels. That all the wine on the list is available by the glass, carafe and bottle is good planning for a new business wanting to endear itself to locals and there's a decent smattering of Italian varieties - Calabrian aglianico, Sicilian grecanico, primitivo from Puglia - that serve the purpose and the theme, but won't necessarily raise the pulses of buffs.
It seems, at this stage, to be a well-intentioned but slightly threadbare work in progress.
Not so with the larger dishes on the menu, particularly with pasta dishes that fly the flag for Calabrian tradition with impressive confidence. Pasta di polenta, an attractive roughly textured pasta made by blending polenta offcuts with flour to make pasta dough, is teamed with pieces of kingfish, peas and an elegant red pepper ragù flavoured with bay leaves, shallots and white wine. Meanwhile, the chickpea quadretti (pasta made from a mix of chickpea and "00" flours that's rolled out and cut into squares) comes with a deep-flavoured rustic oxtail ragù studded with whole chickpeas.
There's good meaty stuff, too, and if there's goat available, don't hesitate. It's slow-cooked in a mixture that includes olive oil, anchovies, white wine, pecorino, garlic and bay leaves, arriving with a pleasant fattiness and admirable tenderness. The season will determine what accompanies the goat, but the combination of garlicky young silverbeet with fresh pine and slippery Jack mushrooms shaved truffle-like over the top is one for a "best of" list.
Momesso's signature dessert of pistachio panna cotta with caramel salted popcorn gets a return season on the Valentino menu, but for those keen to move off the beaten track, the chocolate salami warrants serious consideration. The chocolate log includes crushed walnuts, glacé cherries and candied orange rind, mixed in before it's rolled flat and then into a salami-like shape. This is then cut into slices (three to a serve) and partnered with an excellent chocolate and cinnamon semifreddo, and a piece of grilled casalinga (home-style bread), spread with untreated orange-blossom honey imported from Calabria. Not too sweet and full of interesting texture, it's a mature dessert - one for the aficionados.
Valentino may be very on-trend with its specifically regional Italian focus and quasi-industrial look, but it also feels like a complete original. There's simply nothing like the combination of flavours Momesso is producing here going on anywhere else in Melbourne. His blend of trend and tradition, great ingredients and creativity, plus his Calabrian background and well-documented cooking talent make for great eating, while the affable staff, on the floor and in the kitchen, including a significant number of Italians, round out the experience. Throw some 'nduja into the ring and it becomes almost irresistible.