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TRAVEL ISSUE | Australia

Italian Spoken Here

Melbourne's chefs are turning out serious, soulful food far from the mother country

October 16, 2005|S. Irene Virbila | S. Irene Virbila is The Times' food critic.

The cab squirts past a blur of interesting-looking shops, overshoots the address, makes a neat U-turn and deposits us in front of a window with the word Ladro ("thief" in Italian) scribbled in red. We're in Fitzroy, one of Melbourne's inner-city neighborhoods. A short cab ride or a brisk walk from the City, the downtown business district, it has the same boho vibe as Los Feliz or New York's East Village. Ladro is one of the hottest restaurants of any ilk in Melbourne, and that's saying something because this town is passionately devoted to the art of eating well. The weather is similar to San Francisco's, which could be a factor. Melbourne is also an arts center, so design too is important in restaurants, wine bars and cafes.

Ladro's storefront space features an L-shaped bar with a massive bouquet of flowers, a maitre d' in a gold-stenciled Martin Margiela T-shirt and a busy wood-burning oven. Everyone crowds in at the long communal tables, as more people storm the door or wait outside on the sidewalk. The menu and specials are scrawled on a white subway-tile wall--a handful of appetizers and salads, a dozen pizzas and the roast of the night. From the dining room, you can see into the kitchen, under the command of Rita Macali, a fierce-looking beauty who is Ladro's chef and co-owner.

Pizzas from Ladro's wood-burning oven are thin-crusted and handsome. There's a Margherita, of course, but also Badabing, which has pork sausage, provolone, oregano and fresh hot pepper, and Phat, lavished with fresh mozzarella (straight from Campania), prosciutto and wild arugula. Molten and blistered, the pizzas arrive with a wheeled cutter so you can serve the slices yourself.

Follow--or not--with the roast of the night. It might be quail roasted with potatoes, succulent capretto (baby kid) or porchetta (suckling pig), depending on what the farm that supplies the restaurant has at the moment. In a few weeks, our waiter explains they'll have abbacchio, thereby just about breaking my heart. That's the exquisite milk-fed baby lamb Italians are crazy about, especially at Easter. Now I wish I'd delayed my trip a few weeks. The dessert that night is an organic fruit plate, which doesn't sound exciting, but the devil is in the details--sliced kiwi, fragrant melon and, get this, grapes from a vine that grows over somebody's garage.

After dinner we head across the street to the Gertrude Street Enoteca for a glass of wine and, much later, an espresso. The enoteca is a dishy little place--part wine shop, part wine bar and cafe--serving excellent cured meats, cheeses and panini. A few tiny tables are moored in front of shelves holding wine, amari, digestivi and the occasional cookbook or Jonathan Franzen novel tucked among bottles of sauce and jars of preserved lemon.

Co-owner James Broadway, a wine importer who is active in Melbourne's Slow Food chapter, knows his stuff and offers a small but shrewd collection of top-notch Italian, French and Austrian labels mixed in with some interesting Australian producers. It's such a terrific place to hang that I return the next day for lunch, when his partner, Brigitte Hafner, a chef who writes recipes for the Sydney Morning Herald, helps out with a short menu of simple dishes.

I love the enoteca's quirky aesthetic: Behind the bar is a giant blackboard with Elizabeth David's recipe for duck with figs written out in a lovely hand, and from the ceiling hang Spanish hams and prosciutto, branches of bay leaves, dried red peppers and braids of garlic. And those bottles of sugo? They're left over from a Slow Food event where tomato sauce was cooked up in big cauldrons the old-fashioned way.

See what I mean? Melbourne is really into the Italian thing.

Food in Australia isn't just one cuisine. Immigrants to the remote continent brought with them their recipes and traditions along with their trunks of clothes and memories. Melbourne, the capital of Victoria in southeast Australia, is a multicultural mix of immigrants from 140 nations. In the years after World War II, Italians arrived in great numbers.

Melbourne's restaurants encompass so many cuisines, you could go around the world in 80 days. The strongest, though, is, Italian. I'm not talking red-sauce Italian or the mom-and-pop places you find in New York's Little Italy. In this city of 3 million, a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs has broken out of the 'hood. Well traveled and no slouches in the culinary research department, Melbourne's chefs are turning out Italian cooking soulful enough to rival the mother country's.

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