Kerry has been writing radio copy for donkey's years, & also dabbles in short stories & travel writing. She works, plays and explores largely in the CDB and inner suburbs, gets everywhere by public transport and is the self-professed Zone One Queen.
Published May 19th 2013
Update June 7th 2015
La Contadina has now reinvented itself as 'The Olive Jar'. Same location, new menu, fresh pasta made while you watch! Read more athttps://www.weekendnotes.com/olive-jar-restaurant/
Death by chocolate soufflé, anyone?
Carlton is, of course, renowned for its Italian dining, and Lygon Street is usually where we flock to. The street offers many options, with that particular stretch (you know the one) lined with spruiking waiters, huge laminated menus, be-clothed outdoor tables, images of Roman columns. The general hustle and bustle is inviting to many, and less appealing to others.
If you're after the food without all the fuss, an atmosphere without volume, and the authenticity and quality that springs from doing a few items very well, La Contadina is a hidden secret well worth your exploration.
Look for the friendly pink neon.
In Rathdowne Street just north of where it intersects Elgin Street, La Contadina run by Giovanni Mico and family, is welcoming, cosy and unpretentious. Without the gloss and chrome of some trendier Carlton counterparts, La Contadina is more akin to the rustic style of trattoria you'll find in the back streets of Italy (as I was able to note after a recent trip to both). This more traditional feel is matched by the menu, made up of traditional recipes "with a modern twist".
And this is where La Contadina really comes into its own. Here's what I perceive to be a noticeable difference. In the average Italian restaurant, you'll get multiple menu pages, which for some (myself included) can seem like too much choice. Lengthy lists of pastas in all configurations, pizzas, and the occasional other kind of dish, perhaps a parmigiana or osso bucco.
La Contadina's menu consists of one page – plus a specials board - of authentic dishes that change according to the season, and presented in a mouth-watering fashion. Their style is about simplicity and purity… wholesome ingredients, fragrant herbs. Whenever I've eaten here, I am not only drooling over my own plate, but suffering food envy over my companions' selections – "I must get that next time!"
Bruschetta crowned with fresh basil. Bellissimo.
My partner is a great fan of the Bruschetta starter (crowned with fresh basil) followed by the Barramundi. For me, the Lamb Shanks are so tender, the meat falls off the bone and melts in my mouth. I simply must branch out and try the Seafood Linguine, which I hear is a favourite, and the woodfired pizza that's the equivalent of nearby establishments who specialise in this particular item.
And then there are the desserts. Death By Chocolate Souffle. Yes Chocolate Souffle, that tricky-to-make tempster, too temperamental for most kitchens to bother with. But Giovanni Mico and his chefs coax it into being with the same love and passion for cooking that brings their regular customers back time and time again.
Endorphins on a plate.
Also, the Double Dark Chocolate Torte. A pudding of such chocolateyness that it's almost black, steeped in a velvety sauce, with ice-cream simpering on the side. Even me, the person who leaves Easter eggs uneaten for months, gets a hormonal surge just imagining this dessert to crown all desserts.
And the coffee's great too, of course.
The Mico family have been in the restaurant industry since their arrival in Australia in 1967, gathering a reputation and respect from diners to food critics. You can see a testament to these years on the elaborate walls, which are coated with photos of media and sporting celebrities, an assortment of politicians, the changing 'suit' fashions across the decades, and Giovanni beaming and ever-present. His perfection in the art of cooking is inspired by regional cooking Italy-wide, often learnt directly from an older generation of masterchefs.
The walls document a history of famous patrons.
Another point of difference, which I personally like, is the feeling of being hosted by a food-loving family. Giovanni himself may be chef'ing in the kitchen, but will take the time to come out and greet every table. He's a man of many talents, and has just released a CD paying homage to the songs of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra among others, which are covered with an astonishing likeness. Restaurant patrons at Christmas, New Year's Eve , even a random Saturday night, may be treated to Giovanni live on the microphone.
Giovanni, the singing restauranteur.
From my observations, family groups seem to be having a nice time here. A good place to book for landmark dining occasion – birthdays, Mothers/Fathers Day, Valentines, Spring Racing Carnival, New Year, any kind of celebration. Being away from busy Lygon Street, it's not too difficult to find parking – maybe even right outside - and public transport options are close by.
So. If you want a massive choice of pasta and pizza, there are plenty of places to go. If you want quality and a focus on authentic dishes cooked with passion,
make it La Contadina Ristorante.