Coniglio alla cacciatore: Pieces of rabbit braised in red wine, mushrooms and tomato, garnished with baked polenta.
Pietro Caluzzi began working in the Centro Ristorante Italiano in Clarendon Street in the late 1970s. In the late 1980s he bought a half-share in the restaurant, and by 1992 he and his wife Ruth owned the business. They ran it together, bringing up their own family (and feeding other people’s), for 17 years.
Their search for a new space began last year, but Pietro died in October and never saw the renovated heritage building on the corner of York and Cecil streets that Ruth opened as his legacy in May. Over the years, customers were loyal, some of them famous, and many of them now are second-generation regulars hooked on the classic northern Italian-inspired dishes created by head chef Luke Smith.
Smith trained at Rockman’s Regency and has worked at the restaurant for the best part of 20 years – in between stints at Caffe e Cucina, Centonove and The R Bar. His food is unpretentious and uncomplicated. And that’s the way the business executives who lunch regularly at Centro and the city-fringe locals seeking a comforting evening meal have ensured it remains.
A polipetti marinate (marinated octopus) is a delicate ruby-fleshed delight, its flesh salty, garlicky and meltingly tender, while its ocean neighbour and the restaurant’s signature calamari entrée is a traditional and congruent marriage of fine calamari strips cooked in delicate virgin olive oil with a touch of garlic and a subtle blast of fresh chilli.
Away from the sea, the menu’s stalwarts include a rabbit dish, top-notch gnocchi and the ever-present capellini alla Harold (inspired by leading patron, entrepreneur Harold Mitchell), an angel-hair pasta entrée with diced prawns, scallops and lemon zest. The hunter-style rabbit, coniglio alla cacciatore, is a heart-warming combination of rabbit pieces braised in red wine, mushrooms and tomato and served with an oven-crisped wedge of polenta.
The rabbit is fleshy and the pieces, of varying fat content, are carefully cooked. (Smith sources his rabbit from a Swan Hill supplier and says quality is consistent, although the cold winter has meant leaner-fleshed creatures than he would like). The braising liquid is rich and potent, the perfect foil for the golden finely textured corn “cake”.
Servings are generous and dessert longing is a common post-meal regret. Choices to covet next time include classic winter warmers such as banana soufflé with caramel sauce, hazelnut and chocolate pudding and rhubarb crème brulee.
The verdict: Unpretentious, northern Italian-inspired cuisine, an ambient setting, a short-but-well-considered wine list and classic, welcoming Mediterranean service are the reasons this family-run Italian restaurant has retained its place among Melbourne’s nostalgic favourites for almost 20 years.
Business lunches, family celebrations and special occasions are this restaurant’s forte and Centro’s smart new home, just a stone’s throw from its old Clarendon Street site, is a loving memorial to Pietro Caluzzi, the man behind its success.
Centro Ristorante Italiano, Corner York and Cecil streets, South Melbourne
Chef \ Luke Smith
Prices \ Entrees $14-30; mains $29-$35; desserts $14-$16
Open \ Monday-Friday from noon; Monday-Saturday from 6pm
Bookings \ 9699 5904
Web \ www.centroristorante.com.au
The bold image of Ivana, painted by Wendy Heath, dominates the crisp ivory walls at Centro Ristorante Italiano’s elegant new home. In her tight cherry-red outfit, she’s curvaceous, modern and confident and was the first of the artist's work that Ruth and Pietro Caluzzi bought for their family restaurant. Six of Ivana’s companions are yet to arrive. Many of their images reflect the old Clarendon Street restaurant’s original décor – bleached Bentwood chairs, crisp, white tablecloths and generous wine glasses. These classics have not changed in the York Street space. The renovated heritage building was once the Victoria Hotel, but only its façade remains, tucked below a modern retail complex.