With nearly 20 years in operation, Caterina’s Cucina e Bar is a Melbourne icon. The restaurant, led by Caterina Borsato of the Regional Italian Cuisine television series, has dedicated years to turning out sophisticated, traditional Italian lunches with a bow to modernism, and shows no sign of slowing down.
It’s lunchtime in the CBD and from Queen Street, Caterina’s underground dining room is entered through large iron gates. The wait staff is known for its discretion, and the corporate clientele, from bankers to lawyers as well as foodies, fill the dining room. Whilst lunch can certainly be a lengthy afternoon affair which is simply so Italian, so too can Caterina’s do lunch “espresso” style.
For all of its sophistication, Caterina’s is testament that pure flavour and simplicity go hand in hand. At the helm is Chef Marcello Mariani. Caterina’s long-term friend, mentor and educator, Chef Michele Usci, has also helped bring the menu into the 21st century.
Neither is Caterina’s Cucina e Bar something from a textbook. At every chance, the restaurant defies the expected and the mood can change according to the occasion. The dining room is classical and outfitted with Venetian masks, antique pieces and industrial mirrors. You could be anywhere in Italy. With a nod towards tradition, white tablecloths adorn many of the tables, but the rest are left undressed to show off white-marble tops. The restaurant does this to incorporate an air of informality so that lunch can simply be a quick glass of vino and a stuzzichino if desired.
One feels in capable hands, and an extensive menu of both listed and recited, modernized, and regional dishes match the exceptional service. The kitchen meticulously sources its ingredients with black truffles from Mt. Burnett, West Gippsland organic beef, hard to find Mt. Macedon morels, even local, wild borage found in inner Melbourne. The bread is baked in-house daily and is perfect for mopping up the balsamic reduction with olive oil. Each day long, thin fresh-egg-and-semolina noodles or various types of filled pasta, such as pansoti, are reinvented.
Instances of the menu’s contemporary approach are showcased throughout the menu. Venetian style Spaghetti con Gamberoni e “La Peverada” combines Queensland prawns, olive oil, and garlic with a bread-and-white-pepper-bone-marrow sauce to create a delicate pasta dish. You may find a modern take on Vitello Tonnato of roasted veal slices with a generous smear of tuna and anchovy mayonnaise and crispy artichokes, or the more traditional approach to wet roasted Capretto, pieces of kid on the bone with pecorino and wild fennel on a creamy buckwheat polenta. A selection of vegetarian dishes are also featured, relying on northern specialties such as risotto. An obligatory grappino, by Caterina’s Mamma Stella with crostoli and cantuccini are staples. To complete the story and to make it a true Italian experience, over 350 Italian, French and Australian wines are offered by the bottle.
Caterina’s Cucina e Bar has received the coveted ‘Marchio D’Ospitalita,’ an honour bestowed by the Italian Chamber of Commerce to commend businesses that share authentic Italian cuisine outside Italy. It also stands out as the only up-market restaurant in Melbourne available to host elegant corporate or private functions seven nights a week. The dining room can accommodate 90 for dinner and up to 150 for cocktail parties.
After so many years in the Melbourne restaurant business, Caterina has these words of inspiration. “Happiness for me is having something to love, having something to do and having something to look forward to”, and thanks to a double decade of Caterina’s, many Melbournians are happy simply looking forward to lunch.