Too often we are a slave to the now. All that we care about is the next big thing, the new, the exciting.
Those of us who have ever been tagged with the term “foodie” are more guilty of this than most. We are trend fetishists. We look for the just opened new-Nordic restaurant cooking everything over locally foraged hardwood, or trawling twitter for the first night of a truck that sells Peruvian tacos with homemade pickles. Then, three months later, we’ll abandon them as being passe.
Admittedly, this is a negative stereotype that doesn’t apply to as many people as the media might suggest, but it is an exaggeration rather than a total fallacy. While most of us really just want to eat great food, and are happy wherever we get it, the simple fact that is that so many exciting places keep opening that we all want to try them.
And it means that we sometimes forget about the people that have been doing this, and doing it incredibly well, for a long time.
You can see this clearly when it comes to bloggers and where they review. A quick scan of urbanspoon shows that the admittedly amazing Pei Modern has had 33 blog reviews in just under a year. And yet, despite being one of the leaders of the Melbourne cuisine for 25 years, only seven bloggers have posted about the great Cafe di Stasio.
If there is anyone who cares about food in this country and hasn’t eaten at this St Kilda temple of Italian food, then what on earth are you doing? Because these guys really know how to cook.
This is classic food, served in a traditional three course, a la carte style. In most cases you’re getting one main ingredient, cooked quite basically, with a sauce and maybe a side. But that simplicity is deceiving, hiding an unbelievable depth of flavour in every bite.
Take, for example, a crayfish omelette with a bisque sauce. The omelette itself is thick but light, with clear pieces of sweet cray through it. Draping over this is a pungent sauce, striking in its colour. As soon as it touches your tongue, it punches you in the face. That heady richness of crustaceans flows velvet like with a greater intensity than any seafood dish I’ve come across.
For a lighter seafood option, two fresh scampi, split in half, grilled and served with a touch of garlic butter is hard to pass up. Sweet and toothsome, it’s the picture of great produce treated simply.
Moving on to something a little heavier, half a roast duckling is served simply on a plate with some soft squiggles of spatzli. The rich dark meat of the bird was moist and tender by itself, lifted even further by a salty, powerful gravy. Served alongside in prodigious quantities, this was the sort of gravy that required an extra piece of bread to wipe through it.
Along similar lines was oven roasted pork, the fatty, fall apart meat paired with sweet roast apple and bitter chard. And, yet again, wonderful gravy to pull everything together. Although, if I had to quibble, the roast apple was a touch firm and didn’t work as well as an apple sauce might have, but it’s a minor point.
A side of crisp, starchy chips with a touch of lemon doesn’t hurt the enjoyment of a meal either.
As a slight caveat, the savoury dishes were all quite salty. Of course this is because salt, like fat, draws out and enhances flavours, but there are people who would find it a little too much. Those people might not enjoy it quite as much as I did, so be warned.
Desserts tend, again, to the traditional, which for me means one thing – Tira mi su. Soft and giving, yet still solid enough to stand up, this gives the eponymous pick me up. The coffee is strong but not overpowering, being supported aptly by the slight kick of the Strega, replacing the classic Marsala. It’s the dessert version of a big teddy bear that growls a little when it hugs you. Just as it should be.
The simple but powerful food is matched by the decor, which straddles the line between rustic and arty, the provincial wall paint and face-themed lines balanced by a characteristically eerie Bill Henson photo of a girl floating above the city. The white tablecloth covered tables are a little small for those who, like me, have a greater heft, and they are a touch too close together, although somehow this doesn’t stop the efficiency of the floor staff.
One complaint you sometimes hear about Cafe Di Stasio is about the price, and it is significant. Main courses are all around $40, which is pretty high for a single course in Melbourne. Sadly, that will dissuade some people from coming. For me, food this good is worth whatever you have to pay, and that duck was worth every cent. But for a cheaper option, the $35 lunch special is some of the best value out there.
Ronnie di Stasio has put some serious runs on the board, and he still knows what he is doing. It’s not trendy, and it’s not new, and the Melbourne dining scene has surely changed a lot in that time. But after 25 years, they are still sending out some of the best Italian food in the country night after night.
So Happy Birthday to Ronnie and team, and may you keep it up for 25 years more.
Name: Cafe Di Stasio
Address: 31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, VIC, 3182
Ph: 03 9525 3999
Owner: Ronnie di Stasio
Hours: Lunch: 12pm-3pm. Dinner: 6pm-11pm.