Restaurateur Chris Lucas loves a catchy name – first he gave us Chin Chin, now there’s Baby.
Like its predecessor, Baby has been wildly popular ever since opening (last month).
Staff say they’d expected at least breakfast would be calm to begin with, but the place has been pumping pretty much from dawn ’til late, every day.
I imagine there’s a brief lull between 4pm and 4.15pm, but otherwise it’s all systems go-go-go at The Restaurant Formerly Known as Pearl.
Another thing Baby and Chin Chin have in common is a language tape playing on loop in the toilets.
At Baby, you can learn to say io non copisco in the time it takes to tap the kidneys. Genius.
Obviously, décor-wise, the two diverge.
A fine dish: Blue-eyed cod with clams, tomatoes and potato chunks.
Where Chin Chin is warehouse Asian with sexy masonry, street art and crowd-pleasing Thai from a Nahm-trained crew, Baby is conceptualised Italian trattoria with a trio of native chefs dishing up crowd-pleasing cucina.
Aside from the location, recessed from Church Street within a pizza’s toss from the bridge, you wouldn’t recognise the once-hallowed altar of Geoff Lindsay’s duck curry.
The red light bathing the entry and white-painted interiors conjure a traditional trattoria, with a dash of renovator chic in the canvas backdrops and wood floors.
Leather-cushioned banquettes and cool Bentwoods in filing-cabinet grey with tan leather detailing lift the tone but the mood is very definitely relaxed, loud, bright and busy as Christmas.
There are some excellent staff here – like wine guy Shane, possibly the most charming somm in Melbourne – and also some duds.
Things go pretty smoothly on a late-ish weeknight, but Sunday lunch is amusingly skewiff.
Staff bring the wrong wine to us, forget a carafe at the table next door, and then deliver us the wrong pizza.
Even when the right one arrives, it’s still slightly wrong. Its puffy, pan-fried dough is dressed with melting, creamy mozzarella burrata, basil leaves and tomatoes straight from the fridge. Not caramelised as the menu promised, but raw, chilled and sliced.
A prosciutto pizza is more on the money – a simple arrangement of thin, crisp crust topped with pukka produce like fior de latte and San Marzano tomatoes.
Such quality ingredients are the backbone of the menu, from the trio of cold cuts in the salumi misti to the free-range chicken cacciatora, but the kitchen doesn’t always do them justice.
There is ricotta with mint and broadbeans, served on a too-crisp, too-thin bruschetta. What could be a light, summery muddle of seasonal ingredients on chewy charred toast is a crunchy bread wafer with bruised mint and lacklustre beans.
Tuna tartare also lacks that just-fresh shimmer. I like the intense savouriness of capers, feisty olive oil and chilli, but too much salt smothers the tuna flavours.
That said, they do a cracking calamari. The go-to dish on so many Italian menus is presented here as short strips of squid flash-fried in a sizzling pan and then tossed with rocket leaves and crushed olive. The balance of sweet fish and salty olive is just right.
Pity the waiter whisks away the plate before we’re quite finished.
There’s a heavy Italian emphasis to the wine list – in origin as well as grape variety – but bottles are priced reasonably, with plenty in the $40-$50 bracket, and at least one for $39.
Our pasta has been made on a chitarra, apparently, a stringed box (chitarra = guitar) over which the pasta is rolled gently to extrude square spaghetti ribbons. It’s cooked in very salty water and served with porky garlic sausage chunks, chilli and wild greens – also amazingly salty but not in an awful way. Me piace molto.
We want the rabbit braised in white wine and peas, but they don’t have it, so we settle for the blue-eye with clams, tomatoes and salsa verde.
There’s plenty of charred and juicy white fish seasoned with sweet herbed tomatoes, and pipis for texture and taste. There are also potato chunks that feel unnecessary, but it’s still a fine fish dish.
Desserts cover some of the greatest hits of Italian dolci, from tiramisu to the individual lemon tarts that are all the rage this Sunday lunch.
We snack on more rustic sfinci instead, four fried pastry bombs crusted in cinnamon sugar and a hint of orange zest, with a so-so chocolatey goop in which to dip them.
The sorbet and gelati selection wins rave reviews, from the mango (super) to the nougat (wonderful).
Sorbets, spaghetti and calamari aside, I’m not blown away by the cooking. But friends who are also dining this sunny afternoon tell me later they thought Baby was fantastic – “though maybe a bit loud”. They live just nearby, so their opinion is the one that matters.
Baby, 631-633 Church Street, Richmond
Cuisine \ Italian
Chef \ Dominic Pipicelli
Hip pocket \ $60 a head for a good feed
Open \ Daily 7am-late
Highlights \ It’s so hot right now
Lowlights \ It’s so hot right now
Bookings \ No, dammit
Phone \ 9421 4599
We rate it... 6 ½ / 10