Friday, April 14, 2017

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back

I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire – Mezzalira and Da Rosario.

The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city from Italian and Sons, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. Da Rosario is a hole in the wall attached to it, serving fine lunches, coffees and Italian pastries.

Mezzalira Ristorante - in the glorious though neglected Melbourne Building in the heart of Civic.

Last night my dinner companion and I joined some old friends (also long-term friends) to sample the wares of Mezzalira one more time. We hadn’t been for a while so I was excited to be seated on the corner of the Melbourne Building in the heart of Civic. We were feeling a bit peckish so while we made up our minds we had a plate of their signature rosemary focaccia bread with a side serve of Cerignola green and Taggiasche black olives ‘Schiacciate’ with sage, chilli and rosemary.

I couldn’t stop myself having the favourites I so often have at Italian and Sons – starting with a special of vitello tonnato. This veal dish with a tuna and caper sauce is one of my long-term favourites, and both Italian and Sons and Mezzalira do it very well. 

I first encountered this dish growing up in Adelaide, from a Margaret Fulton classic cookbook, learning that cooking meals didn’t involve opening cans. The first time I ate it was on my last night in Florence, the very first time I went overseas. I had been to the Frankfurt Book Fair and then worked my way across Europe and the UK as winter closed in. My last memory of that trip was drinking cognac in the back of a British Airways plane with a couple of maritime engineers who were being flown out to Australia to bring home a ship.

Like budgies, but nicer
Others around me were having other specials like roasted saltimbocca quail – like budgies, but nicer. With a slightly larger group it’s possible to sample quite a range of the menu. I was so focused on enjoying my own meals that I managed to miss a dish or so that my companions were having. I know that between us we also had entrees consisting of capesante saltate – seared sea scallops, smoked eel, Jerusalem artichoke and watercress; polpo ai ferri – grilled WA octopus, smoked Nicola potato, black olive, pomodorini and basil; and sarde in saor – South Coast sardine fillets, pine nuts, currants and Chardonnay vinegar.

Then moving along on our culinary journey to the main course, I had tagliata di manzo – salt crusted Rangers Valley fillet of beef ‘tagliata’, horseradish, Swiss brown mushroom trifolati and balsamic reduction. The others had hand rolled ‘pici in bianco’ – suckling lamb, rosemary and white wine ragu, with lemon ‘gremolata’; sella di cervo – wood roasted Cervena venison loin in ‘San Guido Guidalberto’, baby carrot, Jerusalem artichoke and fig ‘mostarda’; and Arrosto di Maialino wood fired Berkshire suckling pig, shaved fennel, green apple, and stone fruit mostarda. To accompany it all we had two side dishes – baked rosemary potatoes and green beans and almond ‘aglio e olio’.

A great night's wine selection
Mezzalira has a great wine selection but one of our party long ago developed a taste for good wine – and a cellar to match. He had brought along four wines – two white and two red – to share as we worked our way through the menu. We had a 2013 Staffelter Hof Riesling 862 (Alte Reben), which was a great start to the meal. In the excitement I almost didn’t see the second white bottle, though I can say that it definitely tasted fine. It was a 2014 Kirkland Signature Series Premier Cru Chablis. Kirkland is the house brand that Costco uses and I discovered that they have a US wine blog, which is relevant to the wines they sell here.

Craggy Range winery, at the foot of the Te Mata Ranges in Havelock North, just down the road from Napier is one of the wineries we visited on our tour of the North Island of New Zealand in November-December 2016.

These two fine wines were followed by two reds. First was a particularly special Massolino Barolo 2008, described by our wine afficiando as like a pinot noir on steriods, which needed to be decanted. The second one was a Craggy Range Te Kahu 2013 merlot malbec cabernet sauvignon cabernet franc blend, from grapes grown in a distinctive type of vineyard on well-drained deep Gimblett gravels in Hawkes Bay on the Eastern New Zealand seaboard. We had been in Hawkes Bay, staying in Napier in December the previous year, so it was still a strong memory. Driving around the vineyards scattered across Havelock North and round the Te Mata Ranges had been a particulary pleasurable part of our trip.

Coincidences of the interconnected world
In one of those coincidences which crop up more and more frequently in the increasingly interconnected world we inhabit, the waiter come sommelier who opened the red wines had actually made one of them, the Craggy Range red, when he worked at the winery before coming to work in the hospitality industry in Australia.

We had caught the people’s Uber – the bus – into the city, so while we waited for the last one of the night to take us home, we found the door to Bar Rochford, tucked away just along from Mezzalira and climbed the stairs to the elegant, buzzing and crowded bar. While we perched on stools my companion had a Laphroaig single malt straight and I had a Murdoch Hill Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills before heading home.

All in all, it was a very pleasant night. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Catching up in the kitchen – Pulp Kitchen ups the ante
‘I have been here twice since it changed hands and the capable crew from Restaurant eightysix in Braddon took over this Ainslie favourite, tucked away down the side of the shops. Each time it has been very good and very enjoyable. I used to really like the previous incarnation of Pulp Kitchen and went there many times, but this is even better. I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for many decades and it made for an excellent night in a buzzy, busy venue in the heart of the inner North’, Catching up in the kitchen – Pulp Kitchen delivers the goods.

Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale
‘I've always had a weak spot for Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I have been watching it slowly change over the decades since. The latest addition is a new and very funky bar, Wine Mosaic Lounge, combined with a wine vendor, Argyle Street Wine Merchant. Passing through, we stopped to sample it. We thought aloud ‘we must come back here soon’ – and we will’, Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale.

Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?
'I’ve been entertained by the heated discussion about whether Canberra is cool or not. The question of regional cities and cool capitals is one that won’t go away. Instead of endlessly comparing cities – Melbourne versus Sydney, Melbourne versus Canberra, Canberra versus Queanbeyan, Devonport versus East Devonport (as we did in my youth) – to gauge their degree of cool or of dismal, perhaps we’d be better seeking out the interesting places and features that lurk in every city, town and locality', Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?

Travelling overseas in your own country ­– Austrian winter lunches in the high country 
‘The pay off for cold Canberra mornings is that with no cloud during the night the days are clear and blue and brilliant. That’s when Canberra comes into its own. That’s the time to enjoy a long luxurious lunch with friends. The ACT is so tiny that is doesn’t take long before you have to cross the border in your quest for food and drink and spectacular landscapes. These outings are the slices of life in between the restaurants and bars where you go out in public. This is where the farmers markets and the home-grown produce and the local vintages come together in the privacy of your own home. With moments like this, even winter starts to look attractive’, Travelling overseas in your own country ­– Austrian winter lunches in the high country.

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Ester – the sweet smell of success
‘Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. In the early to mid 1990s Chippendale in Sydney was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else. All that is changing in a big way, with plenty there to explore. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts’, Ester – the sweet smell of success.

In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts
‘Tucked away in a corner at the Ainslie shops where it’s easy to miss entirely ­– in the heart of the suburb know as the Red Centre for it’s exceptionally high Labor vote – is an unexpected delight. The location has hosted a series of less than successful ventures but this most recent has been an unqualified success. Who would have thought that a cafe hailing from Brittany could attract such a crowd. The secret of success is that it focuses on what it does and it does it well. You can park yourself inside the small venue or outside if the weather is fine and pick from some unexpected sweet pastries, throw down the odd glass of French wine or eat buckwheat pancakes or baguettes. The cafe also runs to daily specials that can be very unexpected. Long may it reign over us – Rule Brittany rather than Rule Britannia’, In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts.

We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii 
‘I realise I may have just become a statistic. I have a suspicion that I have eaten more sorbet, gelato and icecream since local Canberra icecream outlet Frugii opened in Canberra’s Braddon perimeter than I have eaten in my whole previous life. Tucked away in hipster heaven, it keeps churning out flavours, in an ever changing smorgasbord of coldness’, We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo
‘Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant. It made for a tremendous birthday lunch in a spacious airy and light space, full of exciting food treated well. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region’, Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

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