The woman at the table next door appears to be channelling Pocahontas. She’s rocking a headband and a fawn-coloured outfit that may or may not be made of buckskin. Sitting opposite her is another 30-something female done up like a game-show hostess. Can I have an E please, Adriana.
If they’d read Rosetta’s website beforehand they would have noticed the dress code at Neil Perry’s new restaurant says “smart”. It does not say, “Come as your favourite fantasy character”.
You can hardly blame them for wanting to dress up. With her glossy mahogany walls, ruched linen curtains and glittering Murano chandeliers dangling from domed ceilings, Rosetta fairly shrieks special occasion.
Diners – perhaps, like us, sipping icy sgroppinos to enhance the Latin mood – recline on white leather thrones and red velvet banquettes, eyeing off marble floors and black-and-white photos of Italian stars.
Rosetta completes a hat-trick of Perry-themed restaurants fronting the river. Australia’s best-known chef now has his ducks in a row beside the Yarra: hot and numbing duck at Spice Temple; confit duck at Rockpool Bar and Grill; wood-fired duck at Rosetta.
The menu, a pretty pastel document with scalloped edges, is as irrepressibly Italian as the interiors. It lists crudi and carpacci, antipasto, pastas prepared in-house and a choice of classic, meat-heavy main courses.
The wood-fired oven and char-grill is a highlight of the Rosetta cucina, deployed with pleasing effect on everything from marinated mushrooms muddled with pecorino to a special of 200-gram wagyu sirloin from Darling Downs.
That steak costs $110, which is precisely double what you’ll pay for Rosetta’s fish stew. Two of the pastas clock in at $65. Staff will recommend you order a couple of sides, too, so that’s another $20 on the tab. Kerching!
Rosetta is not cheap, by any reckoning, but the 700-strong wine list does offer a fair choice of Italian varietals in the $40-$70 range. There’s even an aglianico for $35 but, equally, you could blow close to $1000 on a half-bottle of single-vineyard Gaja barbaresco. We tread the middle ground with a versatile Argiolas vermentino ($75) that keeps us company throughout the meal.
Great balls of fire explode from Crown’s riverfront columns as we tuck into those more-ish mushrooms and a ribbed dome of ricotta – made fresh daily on premises – teamed with roasted and herbed tomatoes, all drizzled with olive oil. It’s freshness on a plate, the ingredients presented confidently on their merits.
The same goes for fleshy crescents of raw scampi meshed with orange slices, mint and pistachio, and splashed with excellent olive oil. You don’t need to fiddle with produce this good.
On a second visit for lunch we try the black risotto of squid with seppia (ink) and lemon. The rice and fish are both absolutely al dente and there’s a welcome hint of chilli that livens things up.
This is a Neil Perry restaurant, so precise cooking is par for the course – the man has high standards to uphold. That said, not all dishes leave us impressed.
A bowl of pea pod-shaped cavatelli pasta – perfectly cooked once more – has a rustic “sauce” of mushy zucchini that tastes mostly of mint and salt, except when you bite into a clove of garlic.
Too much tomato overwhelms the Roman-style trippa. Plus, it’s $39 – steep for cow’s stomach. As my lunch companion says: “You can get more tripe and less tomato at Grossi Cellar Bar for $24. Not great value.”
The only defect of the wood-fired porchetta, served dense and juicy with a cracker crust of crackling, is that it’s not very exciting. The advertised mustard fruits are no more than a garnish and we choose badly with the sides; roasted rosemary potatoes and carrots tossed with salted ricotta do little to relieve the plodding heaviness of the meat. We should have had the salad.
Or, better still, the osso bucco – cross-cut chunks of veal shin are braised in vermentino for what must be hours, judging by the way the gelatinous meat sighs off the bone and slumps into juices laced with lemon zest.
I find myself cursing the size of the bones and wishing (a) there was more meat to inhale and, (b), some bread to sponge the sauce. I make do with a spoon but have to stop myself running a sly finger around the bowl. I’d come back to Rosetta just for this dish.
On the desserts front, I plead negligence. We didn’t have room. But Rosetta offers seven sweet endings, including chocolate torrone, panna cotta and tiramisu.
Crown already has a pretty fine Italian restaurant in Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons (I slobber at the mere thought of Robert Marchetti’s prosciutto). But Melbourne loves a good Italian restaurant – and Rosetta definitely is one – so maybe there’s room for two on this strip.
It’s expensive, sure, but an appealing option on those days when you feel like dressing up.
Crown Casino, Southbank
Cuisine \ Italian
Chefs \ Neil Perry and Brendan Sheldrick
Open \ Tuesday to Sunday noon-3pm, daily 6-11pm Highlights \ Mostly faultless cooking
Lowlights \ Price, pomp Bookings \ Of course. Terrace tables are hot property.
Phone \ 8648 1999
We rate 7 out of 10