Balzari, Melbourne



Fri 9 Oct 2009


We found ourselves in Melbourne with only an old copy of Australian Gourmet Traveller as food guide.  On the basis of little more than a footnote we decided to head to Balzari on Lygon Street and see if the menu appealed.

I am a huge fan of Italian food but find nothing more depressing than Italian restaurants that can do nothing better than produce a menu dedicated to classics such as Carbonara and Bolognese: especially when they are so often poorly executed shadows of what they could be.

Fortunately, Balzari was having none of that.  The menu was short and senisbly price and … interesting.  I stuck my head in to the bar and booked us a table (6pm was only a couple of hours away, but still worth doing, especially on a Friday night).  The waiter was friendly, efficient and took the time to give me a card so I could get in contact if anything changed.  That’s the type of thing that makes me think someone is investing some energy in his or her job.

When 6pm rolled around we were offered a choice of inside or outside table.  Choosing the best of both worlds, we sat indoors but by the large windows and munched the excellent bread, and even better olive oil, while picking over the menu.  Decisions made, we washed down the remainder of the bread with a carefully chosen Roero Arneis.

I started with ‘fritole’ – described as savoury anchovy, lemon and parsley doughnuts with lemon aioli, while Andy had chosen the ‘muset’ – a house made pork sausage, with cabbage, pancetta and fresh horseradish.  The debate was on about who had won.  Frankly, the indulgent little yeast based fritters more than took out honours:  they were small enough to fit in the mouth but with all the lovely aioli, who would want to do that?

The evening took a slightly dodgy turn when our main courses arrived.  Or rather, my main course arrived but Andy’s Berkshire pork tagliata had morphed into the crab tagliarni.  A bit of confusion (mostly on my part) ensued … which saw Andy and me sharing the crab tagliarini while sending my pork cannelloni back to the kitchen to wait for the tagliata.  Even in the retelling the story is hardly straightforward!

The important point is that we ended up with an extra dish (gratis) and it was excellent.  Spaghetti with chilli, oil and garlic is one of my favourite foods but, as far as Andy is concerned, it is like having bread and butter for supper.  Apparently, add crab meat and it’s a very different kettle of fish …

As we were demolishing the bonus food, our waiter checked that we were not on a schedule … and then, our main courses arrived in tandem.  The pork cannelloni was lovely:  the pork sauce was smooth and rich and the white sauce was bubbling and browned.  Andy’s pork tagliata was also good:  the pork had been rubbed with a rosemary heavy spice mix and then seared.  It was tender and moist and very tasty.  It was also served with roasted fennel and orange salad.  Such a shame to spoil good fennel with orange … I stayed well away!

Being rather full, we declined to even look at the dessert menu.  Something which I now regret, as the website tells me I could have had panforte with my coffee, or even a small fried pastry or swapped my coffee for an affogato.

Pudding-less, we waddled out of Balzari our collective wallet $150 lighter.  While we hadn’t skimped in any way, we were not charged for the crab tagliarni.  We still reckoned this to be excellent value.  Service, from booking through to leaving, had been excellent and staff judged the pace of our meal well.  We were never short of water, we could have eaten a tonne more bread and the confusion with the main courses was handled well.

I rarely eat out, eat Italian and come away feeling that I’ve not been ripped off and not eaten something I could have whipped up at home.  Balzari exceeded expectations on all counts and we would return without hesitation.

Executive summary:  interesting, and tasty, northern Italian food you’re unlikely to knock up at home mid-week.

Contact:  Balzari, 130 Lygon Street, Carlton (Melbourne), Victoria, 3053, phone: +61 3 9639 9383.

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Interesting Italian in Melbourne

Rating:4.5 stars