Returning to Melbourne from travels in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, I had the sudden craving for hearty Italian food. It has been several weeks since my Venetian gastronomic adventure at Guy Grossi'sMerchant in the InterContinental so I decided to pay an evening visit to the famed Little Italy of Lygon Street. I quickly regretted the last minute decision as I was ill prepared for the barrage of Italian food establishments lining both sides of the street. Following the crowd of students and families, I ended up with the bright yellow and red of Café Cavallino.
This pizza and pasta restaurant has all the hallmarks of a conventional trattoria, offering medium-priced food and run by a stern-looking family who don't welcome reservations like back in Italy. It offers the typical Italian menu with L'antipasto of hot and cold appetisers, Il primo of pasta, minestrone, risotto and zuppa (soup), Il secondo of meat and fish, and Il dolce or dessert. Like most trattorias back in Italy, this one was buzzing with locals and tourists trying to negotiate a seat with the roving cameriere and cameriera (waiter and waiteress). They deserve credit for their efficiency in working the tables and before long I was seated in the alfresco section. With the trattoria's highlight being pizzas and pastas, I decided to give each a go.
The Cavallino pizza named after the establishment was an un-Italian concoction of mozzarella cheese, fresh tomato, olives, parsley, prosciutto, rucola, shaved parmesan, goat cheese and bruschetta. Arriving much quicker than expected, the pizza was a well portioned visual treat for AUD16. The mixture of flavours from the differing ingredients worked together with each bite. However I found the pizza base thicker than what I'm used to in Southern Italy and the ingredients piled on top as an afterthought to the cooking process.
Next up was the home made Spaghetti Pescatora with fresh seafood including mussels, scallops, calamari, prawns and clams in a Napoli sauce topped with parsley and parmesan cheese. Arriving in quick step after the pizza, the dish was generous with spaghetti and ingredients well wrapped in sauce at AUD15.40. However I was severely disappointed with the overcooked spaghetti. There was no resistance to the pasta as I bit into it. I had Chinese prawn noodles and pork noodles in Kuala Lumpur with more bite.
For an establishment that promotes itself as an authentic Southern Italian style Pizza & Pasta Restaurant, Café Cavallino does live up to the riotous combination of colours and earthier flavours common to Southern Italy cuisine with the hints of Naples, Abruzzo, Puglia and Sicily in its menu.
As someone who has worked in an Italian kitchen with Mama and Papa fussing over preparation and authentic food, I found the attention to the cooking in Café Cavallino lacking. It felt more like manufactured Italian food. A specialty of Southern Italy, pizza should feel and taste handmade with thinner and crispier bases instead of the pizza hut look-alikes. Pasta must be 'al dente'. Even a non-Italian restaurant in the rurals of Hamilton serves 'al dente' tagliatelle pasta. Back in Italy, overcooked pasta is sent straight back to the kitchen. Unfortunately such a request is plainly ignored here.
Perhaps the trattoria needs to focus less on its Formula One and Lamborghini themed décor, signed memorabilia and uniforms, and more attention on getting the Southern Italian food right. Café Cavallino remains a popular place to eat mass market Italian food if you're non-fuss and just looking for generous portions at affordable prices.
As a frequent visitor with friends to Lygon St we long ago came to the conclusion that the restaurants there have come to rely on the reputation of the areas atmosphere rather than the quality of the food. They are very much into getting customers in and out than promoting the delights of Italian cuisine. There ae better examples in the streets adjacent to Lygon and also up the Brunswick end of Lygon St. The main dining strip is definitely not for those who want to be inspired by the food they eat.