Like remaking Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka or letting Michael Bolton cover Otis Redding, the idea of re-inventing, re-creating, re-imagining, or re-anythinging Italian food and restaurant culture is, or should be, a nuclear minefield fraught with horrors one can’t even begin to imagine. Except, of course, when it isn’t, and more specifically, when the project is led by real-deal Italian restaurateurs and a chef, Jason Saxby, whose CV is pretty much a catalogue of once-in-a-lifetime restaurants including The Ledbury and Per Se.
The result is Osteria di Russo & Russo on Enmore Road’s busy café-and-cocktails strip, a restaurant that nods respectfully to the red sauce joints of old while doing something entirely new with a cuisine whose fiercest partisans still brood over Catherine de Medici trotting off to France, recipes in trousseau.
Russo & Russo’s narrow space authentically and intentionally references the past and more specifically the cultural nexus where the Old Country meets the New World. It could be kitsch, but it’s not, and for a moment you wonder if Tessio’s men managed to tape the gun to the back of the toilet so you can take out the corrupt police commissioner. Thus marble café tables and bentwood chairs, old prints and the Blessed Virgin on the wall, and what looks like a very cool little bar up the back. The house cocktail is a “Doctor, Lawyer, or Accountant”, which almost screams for a follow-up “But Ma, I Wanna Dance on Broadway!”.
Sitting down, things go a bit off-piste without ever turning into an overly ironic or self-aware piss take. Menus are pasted into repurposed old books which are themselves food for thought: Open the one stuck in an illustrated libretto of Handel’s Messiah and you could find yourself meditating on the redeeming power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Get the one that’s pasted into a ‘70s era microwave cookbook, however, and you’ll soon stop thinking how cool it’d be to live in the American Hustle era while thanking the aforementioned Saviour that chef hasn’t decided to do an “ironic” “deconstructed” “take” on that nuked-ham-and-pineapple-rings extravaganza on page 197.
And on a Friday night the place is heaving, raucous, and convivial, proving correct the old Joe Kennedy rule of event management, i.e., slightly too many people in slightly too small a space builds its own energy. An early-middle-aged Prick can sit close enough to elbow a happy table full of young birthday party hipsters playing at being grown-up and no one feels the need to glass someone with a sustainable jelly jar cocktail. The whole vibe is very Melbourne, and not in a painfully earnest, “I’m suing the government because a transit officer assaulted me for not showing my myki card when I was taking the tram to St Kilda for the big rally to protest cuts to legal services for transgendered indigenous sharks” kind of way, either. This is fun.
Back to the menu, do note that ordering a la carte can be a little confusing as things are not organised around the traditional antipasti-pasta-meats-then-sweets order of battle. Best to go for the chef’s tasting menu, which for $65 per person for six courses is stupidly good value for money. And should something particularly take your fancy, they’ll figure out a way to work it in.
A plate of scallops opens the batting, dressed as a simple crudo with apples and herbs and a dill sauce, with the protein handled just-so to bring out taste and not just texture. These scallops taste of the sea, as well they should, and too often don’t.
Smoked eel croquettes are obscenely good on their own in only the way properly-fried things can be, but garnishes of peas, preserved lemon, zucchini flowers, and myrtle ash – this last thankfully added not as cheffy vanity but because it genuinely brings something to the dish – take an early lead as “dish of the night.”
And as deeply skeptical of vegetarianism and all the other ‘arian-supremacist food movements which purport to confer moral privilege on their adherents as we Pricks are, a dark and brooding plate of grains and pine mushrooms turns out to be spectacular. Brightened by blobs of taleggio (“whipped into submission!” our server reports, delightedly) the dish pairs so well with a Piano del Cerro we are accidentally given that we ignore the minor miscue over the wine and press on with a gorgeous 2007 Tuscan number that starts out all herby and complex and gives way to silk and chocolate.
Braised pig cheeks – a special request off the menu; they’re accommodating about their omakase – is “inspired by tiramisu”. This is the only time the evening momentarily wobbles under the weight of cute, but with just a bit more sauce this unlikely combination of pork and chocolate and rich, gooey, hazlenuts could be the sort of thing that diners would riot over were it ever taken off the menu.
Especially as the dish is such a great illustration of what Russo & Russo is all about. Saxby’s voice comes through on each plate and he’s doing something genuinely new that could have in other hands been disastrous: There’s a style and talent at work here, one which ably caroms sweet and tart and sour and five kinds of umami off one another like a series of snappy combination billiards shots. This stuff is there in the Italian classics, too, but is all too often buried under the accreted burden of history and tradition and routine.
A cheese course involving a sweet Monte Veronese and quince and candied pine nuts bridges the gap from the savoury courses, while dessert is perhaps the most “Sydney” of all the dishes: An off-centre barricade of quenelles and crisps and some very adult Rice Krispies treats runs across the plate delivering punches of sweetness and salt and crunch in happy, rapid succession.
So go to Russo & Russo. Put yourself in their hands. Have a blast. And tell ‘em the Prick sent ya.