12 Errol Street, North Melbourne (map)
Last weekend it was Nonno's 88th birthday. The Italian half of my family wanted to take him and Nonna out for lunch on the Sunday to celebrate the birthday (and to celebrate the return of my Mum and Dad from their month swanning around Italy), but it was tricky choosing a venue that my grandparents would approve of. It needed to be somewhere that was open for lunch on Sunday, that was special but wasn't too outrageously expensive and that served authentic Italian food... preferably Northern Italian. We learnt our lesson well when, years ago, we made the mistake of taking my Italian grandparents to a (very very nice) Chinese restaurant: Nonno kept scowling and grumbling that the Shanghai noodles hadn't been cooked al dente.
Sosta fit our birthday requirements nicely. Located at the city end of Errol Street, Sosta Cucina specialises in Northern Italian food (with Southern touches, as appropriate). I loved the aesthetics of the place: the prominent Venetian blinds and the old family photos on the white walls. The owner Maurizio looked after our table and gave us fantastic service, speaking politely in Italian to Nonna and Nonno.
I arrived late to find a few antipasti already on the table: Ligurian and Puglian olives under oil, parmigiano Reggiano and - *DROOL* - marinated and pickled Sicilian anchovies. My mouth waters just thinking about those acciughe. Oh, and I can usually take or leave grissini, but I loved these house-made, pepper-flecked beauties. $17 for the plate.
For primi piatti, Mamma had a couple of fiori di zucca ($7 each). The zucchini flowers were filled with ricotta and gorgonzola then lightly fried and served with an heirloom tomato salad. Zia P ordered the Pizzoccheri ($17): baked buckwheat pasta layered with taleggio, savoy cabbage and nicola potato drizzled with a burnt sage butter. It arrived in its own little ramekin and was, by all accounts, thoroughly delicious.
My sister Birdie had the risotto special (which featured sausage and fagioli that came directly from Maurizio's mother-in-law's garden) and Zia P's partner M had the fresh pappardelle with a ragu of lamb and pecorino ($19).
I'll admit to feeling a twinge of dish envy as I looked at the other primi piatti, but then mine came out: the spaghetti al granchio e bottarga di muggine ($20). That's blue swimmer crab meat with EVOO, garlic, parsley, golden breadcrumbs and freshly grated bottarga (grey mullet roe). I'd loved bottarga when I'd had it at Anada and I'm a sucker for blue swimmer crab, so this was the clear choice. Loved the rich flavours and the slightly soggy texture of the breadcrumbs.
Nonno, acting uncharacteristically goofy in a manner that belies his 88 years.
Nonno's main was the fish special: hapuka, on a bed of agrodolce caponata. Caponata is a Sicilian salad made of fried eggplant, celery, capers, pine nuts and soaked raisins, in a mouthwatering sweet/sour sauce. Nonno adored it and kept passing heaped forkfuls to Nonna, insisting that she taste it in order to replicate it at home in the future. :)
Birdie surprised me by ordering a dish with lentils in it: the roasted quail and Italian sausage with bayleaf served upon braised lentils and mustard fruits ($29). Loved the presentation of this dish. Mum and Dad both ordered the roast of the day, which was a veal pot roast served with peas and pancetta.
Nonna and I both went with soft polenta dishes, good Northern Italians that we are. I had the Capretto alla moda di abbacchio con taragna ($28): baby goat, slow cooked with rosemary and white wine (in the style more commonly used for slow cooked lamb), served on soft taragna polenta with shavings of pecorino. Made from ground corn flour and buckwheat, taragna polenta has a slightly nutty flavour that went perfectly with the tender meat. Must get my hands on some taragna polenta to cook at home.
We all shared a couple of bowls of excellent rocket salad, with shaved fennel, pear and a sherry vinaigrette ($8).
Nonna ordered another of the specials, the duck liver with wet polenta and caramelised radicchio. At the risk of being pelted with stale bread rolls by my fellow food bloggers for not being sufficiently "hardcore", I must confess to having a limited liking for offal: the metallic taste of cooked liver tends to be something I endure rather than enjoy. But in tasting Nonna's dish I was blown away by the caramelised radicchio - the combination of sweet and bitter flavours was intoxicating. I bought some radicchio at the market on the weekend just so that I could attempt to caramelise it at home - wish me luck!
Our food was accompanied by some lovely Italian wines: first a sparkling, then an Arneis, then a Nebbiolo. I am ALL about the Arneis at the moment.
Mum and Dad held up remarkably well, considering they'd only flown back from Italy that morning. We looked at a couple of digicam photos from their fabulous holiday which included visiting my brother Buster in Firenze (I was lucky enough to be brought back a gorgeous pair of bottle green gloves made from soft soft Florentine leather). When visiting our Italian relatives in Monfalcone, Mum had gone through all of their old photos and brought back a selection that they had given her.
That's Mamma when she was a little girl (looking very much like me as a little girl). And hey, how totally hot was my zio Mario in the late 1940s, eh? Phwoar. The man is rocking the cardigan-and-Vespa look.
We skipped dessert in favour of strong, strong espressi.
And to finish off, Maurizio brought a couple of bottles so we could have an impromptu grappa tasting. They all tasted great!