Italian renaissance

Author: Michael Harden
Photography: James Geer

The new Brunetti flagship in Lygon Street is a dazzling, heaving behemoth. It's 1500 square metres of terrazzo with marble inlays, oversized lightshades and mirrored ceilings, enormous curved bars dispensing coffee and pizza, banks of illuminated display cabinets full of cakes, pastries and macarons, a gelateria, wall-sized photos depicting 1940s Rome in moody black and white and an à la carte restaurant where uniformed staff ferry plates of house-made pasta to wine-sipping patrons. It makes the former five-shopfront stretch around the corner in Faraday Street seem poky (and dowdy) by comparison. Channelling Milan's Peck or Rome's Andreotti, it's like nothing else in Australia.

Though there have been outraged shrieks on social media about its size and unapologetic glitz alongside the inevitable "I like your old stuff better than your new stuff" laments, the new Brunetti is very much a part of the change that's been gaining momentum in Carlton in recent times.

The once-revered food precinct, the nation's best-known Little Italy, had been languishing in the culinary wilderness since the late 1980s. Back in the '60s and '70s, the area was a culinary flashpoint, one that helped bring espresso, parmesan, extra-virgin olive oil, pizza, gelati, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh mozzarella to the masses. Stephanie Alexander and Tony Bilson cut their culinary teeth here while generations learned about the wonders of wine (and the occasional dry and dry) in the Robin Boyd-designed Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar.

The success of Carlton's very specific cultural mix attracted the inevitable overdevelopment, poor planning and high rents that put the suburb off its game. Many of the smaller businesses - the butchers and grocers, delis and pubs - were swallowed up by clothing stores and generic restaurants, sealing the general (and only occasionally unfair) perception of Carlton as a second-rate Italian theme park marked by oversized laminated menus, a sea of red gingham, the occasional bout of gangland violence and a lot of really average pasta and pizza.

But now there's noticeable change in the air, a new wave. Serious food businesses, many of them helmed by well-travelled first-, second- and third-generation Italian Australians, have begun recolonising the area - both the main drag of Lygon Street and the streets and laneways that surround it - hawking artisan produce, authentic ingredients and great food knowledge. Alongside the surviving icons from Carlton's glory days (Donati's Fine Meats, King & Godfree, Jimmy Watson's, Donnini's, University Café), these new traders are dragging the neighbourhood's food cred back into the black.

"It's always evolving, always changing, but this feels like the next wave," says Leo Donati, the straight-shooting owner of Donati's Fine Meats, who's been working in Carlton since the '60s. "The children of Italians are coming here and starting up new places, and the young Italians are coming here from Italy looking for work. Everybody's speaking Italian - it feels like the '60s again. It gives the place life.

"With all the new food businesses and with Brunetti back where it started it feels like everything's changed," adds Donati, "but at the same time everything's stayed the same."

Brunetti's return to its original home (it reopened on 3 April) is Carlton's back-to-the-future moment. Pierro Brunetti opened the pasticceria-gelateria in 1974 in a single shopfront on Lygon Street, exactly where the new version is now. In 1985 it was forced to move to Faraday Street to make way for Lygon Court shopping centre. Brunetti sold the business to the Angelé family in 1991, and now they've brought it home.

"I think it's a fantastic story, us going back to where it started," says Yuri Angelé, who runs the business with his brother Fab. "It brings back memories of what it was, but at the same time the footprint is much bigger and the concept has obviously changed considerably, so it has evolved from what it once was. But that's not such a bad thing - so has Carlton."

Brunetti returning to its old home and looking for all the world like it's been shipped from Italy is what the new Carlton is all about: old meets new, respect for the past with an eye on the future. Authenticity.

It's a similar story just up Lygon Street where Tony Nicolini has two of his three Carlton businesses. Close your eyes while you're sitting in DOC Espresso, Nicolini's all-day bar and café, and it sounds like Italy. Dire financial straits in Italy have been good for Australia's hospitality industry and Italian is the language of choice around the counter as orders and chatter bounce about in the clattery space. Nicolini likes to hire experienced Italians - waiters, baristas and chefs - and while a staff of good-looking, well-groomed and charmingly accented floor staff is never going to be bad for business, their presence is about more than window dressing.

"What we're doing here in Carlton is trying to create an authentic Italian experience," says Nicolini, while growing up, lived in Melbourne, Queensland and Italy, where he worked in his father's pizza restaurant. "I'm very particular about the people I employ - they need to be from the industry and have experience so that they're very capable and have the right demeanour. I want what we are doing here to be like some of the groovier cafés in Italy."

But it's not just the staff put to the authenticity test at DOC Espresso, DOC Pizza and Nicolini's latest Carlton addition, the beautiful DOC Delicatessen. The product, too, needs to live up to exacting standards.

The deli is probably the best place to see Nicolini's food philosophy in three dimensions. It's a beautiful space, flatteringly lit with a polished concrete floor, marble benchtops and timber ceiling. There are glass cabinets full of cheese (eight mozzarella, five parmesan and eight pecorino just for starters) and house-made pasta, a glassed-in room hung with up to 60 legs of prosciutto (both local and imported), an enormous variety of salumi, shelves stacked tightly with everything from cans of San Marzano tomatoes to bronze-extruded pasta to "00" flour and a bright red Berkel Prosciutto Slicer, ready to slice meat for the sandwiches and rolls that are made to order. Here, the ingredient truly is king.

"Not everything in the deli is from Italy," says Nicolini. "There are a lot of people in Australia producing beautiful things and so I like to feature those local products side by side with the Italian ones. I want the deli to be like in Italy, so it's important that some of the products are local."

Around the corner from DOC Delicatessen and across the road from DOC Pizza is the gorgeous Carlton outpost of Baker D Chirico, the source of some great, truly local produce. Stepping into this beautiful shop - its award-winning design by March Studio - with its undulating, softly illuminated plywood joinery that runs over the roof and down one wall to become the slatted shelves housing the loaves, it's easy to forget what you're in there for and just gape at the rippling organic loveliness of the space. But Daniel Chirico's sensational sourdough and range of sweet stuff, which includes arguably the best custard-filled bomboloni in town, are aromatic enough to soon snap you out of the stupor.

Unlike his St Kilda bakery, the Faraday Street outpost is just a bakery; no coffee and no seating. But Chirico has just struck a deal with Market Lane Coffee, which has set up shop in the little terrace next door, serving its excellent coffee out of the front window, and there will soon be outside tables for those who need to attack their custard doughnut sooner rather than later. But the bakery itself remains a bakery.

"I was drawn to Carlton because of the culture and history," says Chirico. "But the ultimate draw was that there wasn't an artisan baker in the area and I thought it needed one because of the reinvention that's been going on here in recent years. There's a discerning food crowd that shops in the area and so I knew that they would understand what we were doing. That's why I decided to make the shop a singular idea. I wanted it to be just about the product."

Giorgio Linguanti had similar reasoning when he opened his fresh mozzarella shop, La Latteria, in Elgin Street three and a half years ago, with the dream of bringing fresh-daily mozzarella to the people of Melbourne. "Because before that there was no fresh mozzarella on the shelves," says Linguanti, who came to Australia nine years ago, "and the fresh is completely different. But it's a new concept to make mozzarella in a shop in Australia, and so there's no better place in Melbourne than Carlton for the launch of this idea.

"When I first came to Australia I would sometimes get very nostalgic and so I would say to my cousins, 'Please take me to Carlton - I need to breathe a little bit of Italian air.' So I would come to Carlton and hear people speak Italian and see faces that were familiar to me. Carlton represents the Italiano in Melbourne."

La Latteria is a truly unique and idiosyncratic shop, not only because all the fresh, wonderfully chewy and slightly salty mozzarella, bocconcini and burrata is made by hand out the back by Giorgio's business partner Kirsty Laird. It's also because there's Gorgonzola available by the spoonful, milk "straight from the farm" sold in recyclable, returnable glass bottles and yoghurt made in the shop. You can buy a single bocconcini, a vine leaf-wrapped cheese flavoured with truffle that's aged in La Latteria's climate-controlled front window, salted ricotta, smoked scamorza and parmesan from both Parma and Donnybrook. It feels like La Latteria has always been here, so well does it suit Carlton's "Italian air".

Across the road from La Latteria is the Bezela Food Store, an Italian-style produce store run by Tim Merrett and Jessica Sissons, a veteran of Lygon Street food stores King & Godfree and La Parisienne Pâtés.

At first look, the closely packed store with its terrazzo floor and display cases full of salumi and cheese appears very much like the traditional Carlton-Italian deli, but Sissons, who grew up on a farm in rural Victoria, has shaped the store according to her own specific philosophy.

"I've definitely kept the Italian deli template," she says. "You can't go against five or six years at King & Godfree - it's like you become an honorary Italian. But because I grew up in a place where we raised our own meat, I'm very passionate about sourcing locally grown and free-range products. So in the store there's nothing that's not free-range - even the eggs in the mayonnaise are free-range."

There is free-range prosciutto, pancetta and salami at Bezela but no mortadella (nobody is making it yet) and there's also a small range of meat - chicken, beef, lamb, veal, pork - for those after the full factory-free dinner. It's certainly a worthy cause, but aside from the mission statement about humane meat production scrawled on a blackboard high on one wall there's nothing at all preachy about the place. Sticking to the new Carlton template, Bezela holds philosophy and flavour in equal esteem.

There's movement elsewhere in the suburb, too. Over on Lincoln Square, Pietro Barbagallo (a fellow artisan-pizza pioneer with Tony Nicolini) has opened a pizza and pasta joint called Kaprica, while the cluster of great food businesses near the corner of Drummond and Faraday streets (Carlton Wine Room, Masani, Markov Place, DOC Pizza) has recently been joined by shiny, stylish New Zealand newcomer, The Town Mouse. Jimmy Watson's recently opened Wolfs Lair bar in the laneway behind the flagship wine bar, and it's appealing to a whole new generation of cocktail-loving locals, while King & Godfree, which has been operating as a grocery store on the street since 1884, has recently tightened its Italian focus and is planning to open an in-store wine bar and café later in the year.

Further up Lygon Street, herb and spice merchant Gewürzhaus, a great-smelling store dealing in spice mixes, teas and an incredible range of salt, throws a few cuisines into the mix beyond Italian.

One of the most appealing things about the new Carlton is the obvious camaraderie between the businesses. Suggestions of where shoppers might go to get a particular salami or cheese or wine or meat are quick to come. The directions are all of the "just around the corner" or "two blocks up the street" variety. It feels like a village. "It's all about looking each other," says Tony Nicolini. "If we work together to make Carlton a destination, we all get stronger together."

The fine print
Baker D Chirico
178 Faraday St, (03) 9349 3445

Bezela Food Store
105 Elgin St, (03) 9347 9393

380 Lygon St, (03) 9347 2801

Carlton Wine Room
172-174 Faraday St, (03) 9347 2626

DOC Delicatessen
330 Lygon St, (03) 9347 8482

DOC Espresso
326 Lygon St, (03) 9347 8482

DOC Pizza
295 Drummond St, (03) 9347 2998

Donati's Fine Meats
402 Lygon St, (03) 9347 4948

320 Lygon St, (03) 9347 3128

342 Lygon St, (03) 9023 1028

Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar (and Wolfs Lair)
333 Lygon St, (03) 9347 3985

19 Lincoln Sq

King & Godfree
293 Lygon St, (03) 9347 1619

La Latteria
104 Elgin St, (03) 9347 9009

Market Lane Coffee
176 Faraday St

Markov Place
350-352 Drummond St, (03) 9347 7113

313 Drummond St, (03) 9347 5610

The Town Mouse
312 Drummond St, (03) 9347 3312

University Café
257 Lygon St, (03) 9347 2142

View Full Site