Caffé e Cucina is a Melbourne institution. Founded in 1988, it offers a dining experience that takes you back to a different time and place. That's not to say that its food has not kept with the times. It offers timeless Italian cuisine slightly modernised but at its warm, Italian heart it is traditional and comforting.
Walking into the restaurant from busy Chapel street you immediately feel its welcoming and romantic atmosphere. This is a restaurant that has not gone the recent Melbourne way of large spaces, bare furnishings and loud music. No, this restaurant is a step back in time to a gentler, cosier time of restaurant dining. As you walk in you are immediately made to feel welcome and almost at home. The Italian waiters with their Buena Sera Bellaor Buena Sera Signora Bella (depending on your age) seem genuinely pleased to see you. Even though you know every female gets the same greeting, it still warms the soul and reminds you of other Italian restaurants you may have visited on your travels.
The narrow space of the downstairs, dimly lit with tables set for lunch or dinner, seems small, yet bustling and traditional. Upstairs is a little larger, with a cute Romeo e Giulietta balcony with a couple of tables for two, where no doubt, many proposals of all kinds are made. Both rooms have tables set close together, yet far apart, so fellow diners are not interrupted or privy to intimate conversations. They are the sort of rooms where immediately you feel a sense of occasion, be it a pre-movie dinner with friends, a romantic dinner for two or even a special date with a small child (as a friend is wont to do regularly). The occasion is accentuated with gleaming glasses, tealight candles, black table cloths and white napkins. Stress falls away the minute you sit down and take in the big vintage posters of Italian products and scenes and order your fist glass of Prosecco, Peroni beer or Sangiovese.
The menu is traditional, yet modern, with ingredients added to enhance flavors. For example, the swordfish carpaccio has pomegranate seeds added, resulting in a feast for the taste buds. There are daily specials including pasta and risotto of the day, fresh fish of the day and other specials depending on time of year and market offers. The pasta dishes, as you would expect, use handmade gnocchi, ravioli and similar, and have rich, delicious sauces, that make you want to ask for more bread to mop these up. The fish of the day is a delicately cooked dish where the true flavour of the fresh fish comes to the forefront.
Handmade gnocci with spinach, speck and creamy saffron sauce
If you still have room for dessert all the old Italian favourites are there waiting for you; cannoli, affogato, panna cotta and gelati are all very hard to resist. Note to self: leave room for dessert next time. Excellent espresso or cafe latte and, if not driving, a digestif in the form of a grappa, provide a fitting ending to this fine Italian experience.
The service is superb; friendly, engaging and full of Italian charm. This charm can manifest itself as part flirtatious, somewhat concerned, interested and very personable, depending on customer and situation. The sounds of Ciao Bella Signora ring in my ears for days after, and even though I know the waiters treat all their female guests in a similar manner, it is still nice to feel appreciated for having chosen this lovely restaurant.