Feelgood food: Lupino has its own distinct, likeable character.
There are two things you should do as soon as you sit down at Lupino: order a meatball each and a bowl of the warmed olives with Marsala and sage. The polpetti are so good that, after wolfing down one of these piping-hot pork-and-veal delights, I lasso a waitress and immediately order another round. They’re served in a pool of sweetish tomato sugo; any leftovers can be mopped up with the crusty ciabatta served gratis in a wicker basket, along with foil-wrapped sachets of butter.
Olives schmolives, you might think – and normally I’d agree – but Lupino’s muddled fruits are something else. Who knew sickly Marsala would work so well with salty, sage-scented olives? The result is a habit-forming stuzzichini that I now crave about once a fortnight. Ditto the polpetti.
Lupino (‘‘little wolf’’) is one of those places it’s easy to walk past. Sandwiched between Bar Lourinha and the walled gardens of the Melbourne Club, just look for the red neon wolf’s head above the front door. If the place feels ever-so-vaguely familiar that’s probably because the owners are two of the boys who started Becco. Richard Lodge and Marco Lori have brought some of the Crossley Street style with them – terracotta and terrazzo, good wine and assured service, for starters – but Lupino has its own distinct, very likeable character.
Interiors are modern retro, a 21st-century remix of some classic ’70s motifs. The well-lit dining room combines wicker-backed chairs with a fetish for woven textiles (in the banquettes) and macramé (lampshades, signature artpiece). On the table, wooden serving platters and paper doilies lend a playful, hostess-party feel to mealtimes – minus the cabanossi-and-Coon on toothpicks. Staff are confident, engaging and punctual. Plenty of other places could learn about grace and competence under pressure from these guys.
Moving on, there are four basic but good pizzas. Each is sliced into six so that a simple margarita, say, or a garlic and rosemary one can be shared between a group as an extra appetiser.
For a meatier kickoff, the pull-apart lamb shank on creamy polenta is a wholesome choice, a gourmand’s alternative to bangers and mash. With chunks of pork sausage, peas, carrots and hearty jus, this is feelgood food with big, authentic flavours.
The wine list blends local and Italian varieties and the prices aren’t too outrageous for a CBD bistro with a thriving corporate lunch trade. The imports embrace regional specialties from Gavi and Tiefenbrunner to Barolo and Barbera.
Some minor criticisms. The standard tables for two are narrow and barely able to accommodate glassware, bread, condiments and two plates; we have to strategically rearrange everything just to fit on the entrees. And the specials tried so far have lacked the polish of the permanent menu items. A risotto with smoked eel, in particular, was unexceptional.
Not so the gnocchi, which comes as a generous bowl of mercifully light and pillowy pasta pieces drenched in a four-cheese sauce high on Gorgonzola.
The garlic, oil and parsley-scented pasta in the spaghetti marinara is the most perfectly al dente stuff I’ve tasted in ages. It turns what could have been a workmanlike marinara into a plate to savour. Even more so if you add a couple of teaspoons of chopped chillis in oil; there’s a glass of the stuff supplied on each table. It puts the mojo into a marinara.
The lasagna is another steadfast dish – though perhaps a bit meaty for some – as is the crumbed veal scallopine and pretty much all of the menu’s time-honoured Italian repertoire. Even tiramisu, that much-abused dessert, is redeemed in a riot of mascarpone sandwiching sheets of deeply caffeinated and groggy sponge, all of it dusted with bitter cocoa that helps balance the sugar-hit. It’s so good we score it out of 10 and decide it’s easily an eight.
But it’s not my favourite way to end a meal at Lupino. That would be the scroppino, which is basically an excuse for two more drinks under the guise of dessert.
Lupino don’t blend theirs, they serve it DIY; a scoop of lemon sorbet in a long glass with shots of vodka and prosecco on the side. Pour the booze over the sorbet, mix and drink it with a straw. It’s destined to become my favourite summer nightcap. I just hope they invest in a blender to save me doing all that hard work myself.
41 Little Collins Street, City
Cuisine \ Italian Chef \ Marco Lori
Hip pocket \ $60-$70 a head for three courses
Open \ Wednesday-Sunday 11.30am-10.30pm
Highlights \ Feelgood food, sharp staff and fitout
Lowlights \ Cramped tables for two
Bookings \ Yes
Phone \ 9639 0333
We rate it 7.5/10