Name: Mama’s Trattoria
Address: Melbourne Building, West Row, Civic
Ph: 02 6248 0936
Hours: Lunch: Monday – Friday, 11am-3pm. Dinner: Monday – Saturday, 5pm-11pm
When Europeans first came to Australia, they brought with them the food of their homelands. For most of the first 150 years, that meant a lot of English and Irish-style roasts and stews, with a smattering of Cantonese dishes in every town.
But then 60 odd years ago, following the Second World War, came an influx of people from Italy and Greece. This immigration program was one of the best moves in Australian history. Not only was it an economic success, reinvigorating our post-war economy, but it revolutionised the eating and drinking culture of this country.
From olive oil to café culture, the way we think about eating has a lot to thank those immigrants for, particularly the Italians. Since then, this country has been flooded with pasta sauce.
As with any cuisine, over the years it has become more sophisticated. Our tastes have matured, the flavours become more complex. This has made for some exceptional restaurants, even here in Canberra.
But sometimes, we just want to eat the home cooked versions of these dishes, to the food that you think you’d be served at a family table in Italy.
That is what Mama’s Trattoria is meant to be.
This Canberra stalwart recently moved out of its long time home in Garema Place, heading to West Row to take over the premises vacated by Sabayon. They have kept much of the décor from Sabayon, I assume out of necessity, as that which fitted modern French doesn’t work so well for traditional Italian. A few small wall ornaments aren’t enough to bring the warmth of home.
Starting with a classic of simplicity, bruschetta pomodoro. Being nothing more than toasted bread with tomato, garlic and olive oil, it lives and dies on the quality of the tomato. Thankfully, here they have somehow sourced some sweet, fresh tomatoes, and done little more than chop them. Exactly what Italian food is meant to be.
Off the pasta list, gnocchi della casa seemed the way to go. With just homemade gnocchi in a tomato sauce, this is again a very simple dish. The first sticking point for a dish like this is the gnocchi itself. Here the dumplings were light and soft, if possibly a little pasty. They delivered what they were meant to.
Sadly, the sauce didn’t. Whereas the tomatoes for the bruschetta were packed with flavour, this sauce was thin and bland. It desperately needed seasoning.
Unfortunately all that was available to season with was the absolute anachronism of powdered “parmesan cheese”. We all remember this awful substance from our youth, but the idea that an Italian restaurant doesn’t use a proper block of cheese and a grater baffles me. It is a simple way to improve both flavour and authenticity.
A main course of pollo con pepperonata, or chicken braised in a chunky capsicum sauce, was more on the money. The chicken was thin but moist, and the capsicum rich and sweet. But the real star was a huge slab of grilled polenta. It was just the right texture, with the caramelised grilled edges creating a chewy piece of joy.
For dessert I had tiramisu, as is always my pick from traditional style Italian places. This one was a little disappointing, far too dry and lacking in much coffee flavour.
With some decent but forgettable Italian wines by the glass, and an overly milky coffee to finish things out, this was a variable meal.
But more than that, it was a meal stuck in the past. Between the powdered parmesan, the giant phallic pepper grinders wielded by the wait staff, and the giant pieces of parsley for garnish, everything just felt old fashioned.
You can get away with that if the food is perfect, if it really does feel like you’re eating from Mama’s kitchen. But here it’s only OK. Australia eats a lot of Italian food, and a lot of good Italian food. It has moved past this.
Even still, it is cheap and not unpleasant, if you order well. There are moments here that deliver what you want when eating from an old Italian family table, but just not enough.
And they really need to fix the cheese.