I was encouraged to check out Carlton Espresso, having been told they serve authentic Italian flavours that would meet my fussy familiarity with Italian cuisine. I was also warned about their up-turned nose service attitude. Armed with a dinner table of 6, I walked into Carlton Espresso, part of the D.O.C restaurants, and my faith was somewhat renewed by this upmarket version of Pellegrini's.
Carlton Espresso was dressed in contemporary decor that didn't hint at any specific region of Italy but the menu at first glance was certainly bursting with provincial goodness. Not the internationalised Italian food of Milan that seems to be prevalent in Lygon but simple, rustic fare that reminded me fondly of Tuscany, Campania and Pulgia.
The highlight for me is the Spuntino (snack) and Pasta - origin-sourced, handmade and homemade that promises true-to-Italy flavours. Even the olive is De Cecco's originally founded in the Abruzzo region. The large order of "affettati e formaggi misti" spuntino at AUD25 is no snack but a paddle of various cured meats and Italian cheeses for easy sharing among my group. We accompanied that with a range of pasta flavours including the Campania black tagliolini with calamari in a leek cream sauce, Tuscan pappardelle with porcini mushroom and truffle oil, and the lasagne.
Portions of all orders were reasonable and the flavours were individually satisfying. Most importantly, the pastas were al dente and reasonably priced at average AUD22 for an individual serving of 170 grams.
Carlton Espresso is an excellent place for sharing rustic Italian flavours, conversations and wine with family and friends, just like back in Italy. The atmosphere is cosy with long wooden tables, soft lighting at night and the chatter of Italiano. Despite the busy dinner hour, the staff organised an entire table for us and service was both friendly and efficient. It may have helped that we knew our Italian food. With a "Salut" and "Buon Appetito", Carlton Espresso is now on my "good food" list alongside Guy Grossi's and Merchant in InterContinental, The Rialto.