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Published August 19th 2012
Cheap Eat's Guide Award for Best New Cheap Eat in Melbourne
Is there something in the water that flows down the Eastern Freeway from Carlton? And if so could that water possibly be Pellegrino because this is the second time recently I have reviewed a place in Balwyn North which seems more Italian than Lygon Street.
Pure Italian in Belmore Road has just won the Cheap Eat's Guide award for Best New Cheap Eat in Melbourne.
Someone should tell them that it is not all that new. In fact it has been open nearly two years, but it is probably the first time Age reviewers managed to get out this far.
I had to double park to allow an elderly passenger to disembark but the owner's wife Carmel came flying through the front door onto the road to assist.
By the time I had parked the car Carmel had found my companion a seat. A minute later a waiter arrived with a menu and a cheery "I'll be back in a minute to take your order."
This was pretty impressive given the surrounding throng. The crowd seemed young. It is obviously a bit of a gathering place. Quite a few tables with bands of girlfriends while the available bachelors seemed to turn their backs on them and opt for reading newspapers at window stools looking out towards passing Ferraris.
Weekdays its a different crowd, mothers doing coffee after school drop offs, girlfriends doing luncheon and retired folk.
The feel here is provincial-rustic, stone floor, wooden tables, hanging garlic, shelves brimming with produce including bread, balsamic vinegars, olive oils and pastas. Lots of evidence that family is important here. A wall is plastered with family photos and this is very much a family run business. Carlos's son works as the barista, his daughter (also a chef) runs the floor while his wife Carmel is everywhere at once. No one escapes her notice and her attention to detail.
There are two rooms, the bustly front room with the counter and downstairs a slightly more spacious and quieter option. There is also a courtyard.
For lunch there are a huge number of options. There is a whole counter devoted to antipasto selections such as olives, roasted peppers, bocconcini, feta salad, beetroot and crumbed eggplant. Towering creations (to call them sandwiches would be a travesty) waltz out of the kitchen. Other popular items are individual packages of hot chips beautifully presented in turned down brown bags. Each one with a dinky side bowl of specially prepared dipping sauce. Teenagers would love these.
The lunch menu is scrawled in spiderly writing on a scroll of brown paper on the wall. Many words are in Italian. Thankfully the waitress has a ready answer for the resultant questions. And why should Italians have to dum it down for us in any case?
Apparently this menu changes weekly although there is usually the famed calamari dish (soft rings, lightly floured and pan-fried in olive oil and served with a dollop of balsamic mayonnaise.)
Some of the day's choices included pesce and patate ($22), papparadelle and meat ragu ($18), scampi gratin with basil pesto ($25) bresaolaw taleggio (a handmade pasta dish stuffed with cheese, honey and walnuts.)
My friend opted for tortellini stuffed with pear, gorgonzola cheese and ricotta served with prosciutto ($19). The handmade pasta, looked like soft pillows but was cooked al dente.
I had the Roman stracliatello ($12) a home-made chicken broth with egg and herbs twined through it. The first spoonfuls were unassuming but as the level went down the plot got thicker and it ended up being entirely memorable. This was served with crusty Italian bread, lightly grilled and sprinkled with herbs.
The coffee was lovely, as I knew it would be. Simply Italian buys its coffee from local coffee roaster Stephano Romeo who also has his own cafe in the area - Caffe Romeo. Another equal to if not better than Lygon Street option.
On the weekends Purely Italian also does all-day breakfasts. Some of the choices include grilled parmesan polenta with smoked trout ($15.50), avocado and rocket pesto ($15.50), calzone with pork sausage and mushroom and asiago cheese ($16) and pan fried sardines with roasted cherry tomatoes ($14.50).
The fridge is stocked with take-home fresh pastas (veal tortellini, fettuccine, ricotta ravioli) sauces and lots of Italian soft drink and mineral water options.
Pure Italian also offers cooking classes.
Soon Carlton residents will be making the 15 minute freeway journey out to North Balwyn. Now won't that be a turnaround.