With so much focus by food writers, be they bloggers or journalists, on the latest food trends we tend to hear a lot about the “it” cuisines and restaurants. In case you were wondering, Mexican was the flavour of the month, but it is now giving way to a slow but steadily growing love affair with a number of South American cuisines. With all of this chatter going on it is easy to forget that really good Italian is exactly that – really good. A visit to Osteria La Passione will soon remind you why Italian food should still hold a place in our gastronomic hearts. In the hierarchy of Italian eateries the osteria comes after the trattoria which comes after the ristorante. Osterie are traditionally where one would go for a good cheap feed. Don’t be misled by the humble appearance of Osteria La Passione though, there is some seriously good food being served in this tiny Richmond eatery. It is the first venture of chef Carmine Constantini. Born in Italy he worked at Caffe e Cucina, Stefano’s and the Tea Rooms at Yarck before going it alone.
There is no menu for the six course dinner that changes daily which, along with the simple fit out, reminds me of Torrisi Italian Specialties in NoLita NY. The guys behind Torrisi will be in Melbourne for the 2012 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and will be worth seeking out. Don’t be surprised if the table next to you receives different dishes – each party’s six courses is personalised to accommodate any food preferences or dietary requirements. At $75 per person, it may challenge some people’s idea of cheap, but not mine because the quality of the food is impeccable, all meats are cured in house, the olive oil is to die for, the house-made bread is unlimited, the tables are well set with good drapery and cutlery, and the service is effortlessly professional and thoughtful. There is a small wine list of mostly Italian and Australian options, but you can BYO for $20 corkage a bottle. I suggest you dust off something good from home if you have it – it’s worth it. Our red was expertly decanted and allowed to breathe until we were ready for it.
Our meal started with cured ocean trout with fennel, shallots and picked rocket leaves. It was a simple elegant dish with perfectly balanced flavours. All four plates on our table looked like they had been licked clean so good was the olive oil and blood orange dressing – perfect for being mopped up with the excellent house bread.
Next a sformattino with broccoli. With a texture somewhere between a souffle and a quiche this was truly a sublime dish. Richly flavoured and beautifully cheesey, it was still light and airy and offset well by the fresh tomato sauce. More please.
A dish of house-made salsiccia with green lentils may not be overly pretty on the plate, but each mouthful was wonderful. The lentils were perfectly cooked and the salsiccia is something I would go back for.
No Italian meal would be complete without a pasta course. We had trofie al pesto. I spied pappardelle with a rich ragu at a nearby table and almost had food envy, until I tasted the pesto. It was everything I hope mine is whenever I make it. Vibrant green and packed full of flavour, I really enjoyed the pesto but thought that the dish needed pepper. I saw a grinder sitting atop the glass cabinet that housed the smallgoods and politely asked a waitress if I could have some pepper. This small request certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons (so to speak). The waitress I spoke to disappeared into the kitchen, then reappeared flanked by other staff who were all looking at me anxiously. Concerned that it may have been the waitress in question’s command of English that was causing confusion, I repeated my request to another member of the floor staff. No immediate response was given but the pepper grinder was fetched and I soon had some speckled on top of my trofie. “We don’t normally do this” I was told. I respect a chef’s wishes to not have salt and pepper on the table, many people thoughtlessly season the food presented to them without first tasting it. However if I have tasted my food and then determine I want pepper and can see the grinder, it should not be too strange a request. If you don’t want people to ask for it – put it out of sight! It was the only hiccough of the night, and a minor one at that.
When you have really good quality ingredients, they should always be allowed to speak for themselves. Such was the case for the roast pork belly that came out next. It was unctuous, but in a good way, and I simply do not know how the skin could have been any crisper. Accompanied only by a little cavolo nero, it was a dish that relied on flavour not pretension.
At this juncture we should have been served dessert, however, the staff recognised that we still had red wine and asked if we wished to have an additional course of cheese to go with the wine. Turophiles that we are, the only answer was yes. The cheese plate included; a taleggio, a semi-hard 24 moth aged cow’s milk cheese that was lovely but the name escapes me, a pecorino with truffle, another pecorino with honey and a hard goat’s cheese. They were served with slightly charred bread and an assortment of condiments, including a fabulous home made quince paste. For me the truffled pecorino with a drizzle of honey and some walnut was hard to beat. If you have never tried cheese (best options are a hard cheese or a blue) with truffle and honey – do so the first chance you get, you will not be disappointed.
Now it was time for dessert, and you do not get much more quintessentially Italian than tiramisu. Not having a particularly sweet tooth I normally shy away from this page of the menu, but I was pleasantly surprised by the light touch that this classic dessert had. As with everything it is all about balance and it was spot on here – not dominated by sweetness, or coffee, or alcohol it was luscious and light all at once.
Osteria La Passione is a delight to dine at. The things it does well are the things that really matter – quality ingredients, honest dishes with amazing flavour and good service. If you go, be prepared to be at the chef’s whim – the food isn’t rushed and the tables are not turned over, so expect to savour things and take your time. Which can be a little uncomfortable on the old church pews and hard back seats, but I will happily forgive them this and look forward to turning to see what chef Carmine Constantini feels like cooking next.
Osteria La Passione
486 Bridge Road, ?Richmond
Tue – Sat 6pm-10pm