Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Dining at Café Di Stasio

31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda -

For nearly 25 years Café Di Stasio has been discretely located in the heart of the hustle and bustle of St Kilda’s grimy Fitzroy Street. The dark venetian blinds shield diners from the sights and sounds of thirty somethings hens parties, street buskers and the squealing teenagers teetering in heels in the line up for the local hotel.

Upon entering the small restaurant, you’re struck by the drama of the shadows of the mask light fittings on the neutral walls and prominent artwork featuring a falling woman on the back wall. The lighting is dim and intimate, the room is crowded and buzzing with conversation. Celebrations, heated debates and new love fill the room.

Photo by Julia Atkinson, from Broadsheet Melbourne

White jacked waiters rush between the crowded tables, providing that touch of old fashioned glamour. One would expect Don Draper to be dining with his latest squeeze in a discrete corner hidden amongst cigarette smoke. Or perhaps Vito and Michael Corleone would visit for a plate of pasta and a banter about the latest developments of the mafia world.

After martini’s and glasses of prosecco, our group of five was ready to review the menu – and what a menu it is, it includes:

·        Carpaccio Con Rucola – Thinly sliced raw beef with lemon dressing, parmesan and rocket

·        Omelette D’Aragosta – Crayfish omelette with a bisque sauce

·        Lasagna Con Primaverile – Homemade pasta with tomato, mozzarella and basil

·        Maltagliati Di Pane Con Calamari – Bread Maltagliati with calamari and radicchio

·        Anitra Arrosta Con Gnocchetti Di Farina – Roast duckling with spatzli

·        Brasato Di Cinghale – Wild boar braised with white wine, chestnuts and radicchio

·        Saltimbocca Con Gnocchi – Pan fried escalope of baby veal with prosciutto, sage and semolina gnocchi

·        Porchetta Con Mela – Oven roasted suckling pig with baked apple
If the extensive regular menu is not sufficient, there are also a number of special dishes including a ‘Sapori Di Mare Del Giorno’ (seafood speciality of day), as well as a soup and risotto of the day. I mention this, as for entrée I had the Sapori Di Mare Del Giorno, which was Western Australian Scampi cooked in butter and garlic. The scampi came halved, and still in their shells, with half a fresh muslin-wrapped lemon to be squeezed over their chargrilled bodies. This dish was so good that I am ashamed to say that I actually picked up the scampi to ensure I had every last morsel of delicious salty butter flesh out of the shells. Another popular entrée was the soup of the day which was a delicious thick green lentil soup. Feedback in regards to the ‘Carpaccio Con Rucola’ was that the dish contained far too much rocket (a literal mountain of it obscured the beef!), but the raw beef itself was delectable.
For main, I could not go past the ‘Maltagliati Di Pane Con Calamari’, which I had been informed was a must-try dish from Café Di Stasio. ‘Maltagliati’ means literally ‘badly cut’, and traditionally maltagliati were the off cuts of other pastas, often appearing in random shapes. Some sources report that it originated in Emilia in Northern Italy. Now, maltagliati is often purposely produced and cut into miscellaneous shapes.

Again, delicious buttery flavours of the perfectly pasta accompanied by perfectly cooked calamari. The sharp flavours of the radicchio and salad onion cut perfectly through the dish. A very delicious dish indeed. I’ll be trying to replicate it using the recipe Café Di Stasio have provided to Gourmet Traveller magazine, find it here.

The lighting in Cafe Di Stasio is not great for photos!

I also highly recommend the side dish of ‘Insalata di piselli’, a salad of peas, shaved buffalo ricotta, chick pea shoots and mint. Next time I’ll order ‘Finocchi Stufati Con Grattugito’ (fennel baked with milk and toasted breadcrumbs) which sounds delicious too. In the scheme of the meal, the side dishes were really reasonably priced, all being either $9.50 or $11.50.
The dessert menu is ok, but to be honest I was not overwhelmingly excited by it. I had the special dessert of the day, which was two cigar-like cannoli. It was tasty but not especially exciting. In reality after the entrée dish and the pasta main, I really didn’t need dessert.
Overall, Café Di Stasio is impressive. It’s easy to see why in 2012 alone  it was named by The Australian as Australia’s ‘Hottest Classic’ restaurant in the Hottest 50 Restaurants, came a very respectable 31st in Gourmet Traveller’s top 100 Australian Restaurants, and maintained it’s ‘Two Hat’ status in The Age’s Good Food Guide.
All this success does come at a price, and I’ve read criticisms of Café Di Stasio as being too expensive. Perhaps this is due to the flood of casual Italian dining offerings, meaning diners unrealistically baulk at paying higher prices for pasta than they would at a casual chain restaurant down the road. However this food is worthy of the price tag, the quality of the ingredients is prevalent, as are the skills of the chef and his staff.
However I’m not as convinced by the pricing of the wine list. I feel that the high pricing does not encourage diners to try new wines, and the majority of the extensive wine list will be unknown to the normal visitor.
I’ll look forward to the renovations to Café Di Stasio which commence from this October. A new, informal bar and eating space will separate the restaurant dining room, yet be connected by narrow voids. A private dining room will also be created. Ronnie Di Stasio informed The Australian "The whole thing will be part of subtle change in the dining room, with the menu and wine list. We have become, over the years, a special occasion kind of place and it was never meant to be. I want this place to bustle.”
Here’s hoping the renovations bring back the bustle, but maintain an atmosphere Don Draper would enjoy. There is a secretive glamour and intimacy to the place that should not be lost.

What I liked: The food is very, very good (with the exception of dessert). The bustling but intimate atmosphere, the drama of the room.
What would I like to see: A little more diversity in the prices on the wine list – an average diner would not recognise most of the offerings, nor do the high prices prompt many people to try something unfamiliar.
Similar to: Assaggio, Hyde Park, Adelaide – but a much more elegant and sophisticated atmosphere

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