I remember being a kid and being taken out by the family to eat Italian. We would hop into the car and head off to cosmopolitan Carlton to eat in one of the many 'Italian' bistros in and around Lygon St. Now I seem to remember that there were certain fixtures common to a lot of these restaurants. Gingham table cloths was one, paper table mats with maps of Italy was another and who could forget those mysterious Chianti bottle candle holders, I say mysterious because in all the times that we went out to eat in these places I never actually saw anyone drinking Chianti , most people would be having wine, but not from the rattafia but by the caraffe (a rare beast these days) and I assumed that they were imported in their empty state from somewhere in Italy to provide illumination for Melbourne diners. Then there would be the Italian suggested sell consisting of: "would you like some garlic bread?" This would come to the table in small crumb filled and doiley lined ratafia baskets usually made some where in Asia (early fusion elements perhaps?). Then the food would arrive: I would have my beloved spag bog, usually consisting of overcooked noodles and a meaty tomato sauce with heaps of parmesan sometimes straight from the Kraft dispenser, dad used to love his spaghetti carbonara (a dish it seems very much in decline), mum would have either the spaghetti saltati with it's big bacon fix or have a marinara. Main courses out the way we would peruse the Taranto supplied dessert menu and pick from the speciality ice creams such as: Tartufos and Cassatas and let's not forget the evocatively titled forbidden apple. Dessert done, we would have a cappuccino from the espresso machine and head home to the suburbs happy and sated.
And now, here in the nineties things have changed somewhat. We still have Italian bistros but the form has evolved: Gone is the Gingham and so are, mercifully those wax encrusted straw covered bottles. The nineties has overseen the rise of the 'Chic Italian Bistro' and they certainly have proliferated around the inner city area. The CIB is characterized by: minimalist interiors, wooden floor boards, contemporary light fittings, wooden blinds, cloth tablecloths with paper overlays, snappy staff, oyster hoops, oh yes and framed posters of Italian consumer products from Ferraris to Fernet Branca. Some offer the al fresco experience with sidewalk seating but this is not mandatory. The one thing I do take issue about these interiors is that, due to all the reflective material used and the fact that the tables are usually very close together these places can be very noisy. However the food has certainly changed or should I say evolved a great deal.
The once ubiquitous garlic bread has been replaced by bruschetta, which admittedly can be brilliant or mediocre, and those straw baskets, which grilled garlic bread used to appear on, have been banished, thankfully. The pasta has changed too, spaghetti, is seldom seen having been replaced by linguine it seems and a profusion of other noodles grace these menus: Penne, Rigatoni , farfale , fuselli, and paperadelle to name just a few. And cooked and presented differently as well. I remember a few years ago having my first my first dry pasta: a dish wonderfully called: The earth, the sun and the sea, this was a simple dish of linguine (the earth) with sardines (the sea obviously) and flavoured with the sun elements, garlic and chili . Simple, yet utterly delicious.
Deserts have evolved too, the Taranto menu has been replaced by Tira misu (a relatively new invention) and among other items, the lemon tart, a bit odd when you consider it is more associated with the French than the Italians and of course the cappuccino has been replaced by the caffe latte but I don't have to tell you that.
So here we are in the Chic Italian Bistro of the nineties. Rocket is everywhere.
The cheese is better.
It may be a bit noisy but, darling it's so much more stylish. And best of all, more veal parmigiana.
The king is dead, long live the king.
Â© Cameron Smith 1999