Where: Osteria Ilaria, 367 Little Bourke Street Melbourne
What: The best pasta you’ll have outside Tipo 00
Who: Boneless Bestie, Indo Food Bud
Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed
I remember the good old days when one could waltz into Tipo 00 and get a table within five minutes, but as Nelly Furtado taught us, all good things come to an end. If you’re not willing to balance precariously on a high stool at the bar or firm up your Thursday night plans six weeks in advance, Tipo 00 is off limits, which is why it made foodie news when the team behind the famed pasta bar opened sister restaurant Osteria Ilaria a few doors away where overpriced Scandi bar DuNord used to be.
Unlike Tipo 00, you can make bookings within a more reasonable timeframe at Osteria Ilaria and it prepares a full gamut of Italian dishes that extend beyond pasta. I visited with Boneless Bestie – my former housemate / perennial life coach / on-call food buddy who eats everything with me save for things that contain bones in any way, shape or form – and Indo Food Bud, who hails from Bandung and shares my love of ikan bakar.
It’s not hard to remember that Osteria Ilaria used to be DuNord – Boneless Bestie noted that the “shit front door” has remained – but the atmosphere is markedly more rambunctious. Waiters, who cleverly strike the right note in their service by being attentive but leaving you to your own devices, quickly shuffle in and out of a central kitchen that is flanked by stools and tables that back up against a bare brick wall.
Indo Food Bud’s love of dining is renowned, as she recounted to us how she took a day off work to visit Tipo 00 in order to circumvent the queues. So of course she’d already been to Osteria Ilaria on a previous occasion. She recommended we order its pecorino cheesecake, a wobbly soufflé topped with sautéed pine mushrooms, but alas Osteria Ilaria has an oft-changing seasonal menu and the cheesecake was nowhere to be found.
Swallowing our disappointment, we ordered an assortment of other dishes, including Osteria Ilaria’s mainstay prawn paccheri – one of the few pasta dishes on the menu other than a peas, pistachio and goat’s curd gnocchi.
Boneless Bestie who is now a high-flying, jet-setting executive at Emirates’ New York office made us question our life choices while we were waiting for our food to arrive.
BB: I’ll try and get a standby flight to New York on Sunday, but if I don’t get on that flight, worse come to worst I’ll…
Me: You’re welcome to come back to mine!
BB: I’ll fly to Dubai and work from there.
Me and Indo Food Bud: Oh.
Thankfully we soon got to drown our feelings of inadequacy in Osteria Ilaria’s cushiony fennel-seed bread and house-made butter. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of fennel seeds, I enjoyed the fluffy bread when paired with the incredibly creamy and spreadable butter.
Unable to go past deep fried oblongs of goodness, we also ordered a porcini mushroom croquette each. I greatly enjoyed the perfectly crumbed exteriors that gave way to an earthy and heady combination of mushroom, but Boneless Bestie commented on the lack of discernible texture within the croquette while Indo Food Bud said she preferred the mushroom croquettes at Spanish Collingwood restaurant Robert Burns Hotel. My unadulterated love of this mushroom croquette perhaps means I shouldn’t add croquette connoisseur to my CV anytime soon.
Our second dish was a buffalo mozzarella, burnt tomato and green olives number. True to Osteria Ilaria’s fast evolving menu, this dish isn’t on the menu anymore! It was a good palate cleanser after the rich mushroom croquette – the velvety blobs of buffalo mozzarella and the pangrattato-coated tomato slices were simplicity at its best.
The baby octopus in our third dish that was spreadeagled on a bed of nduja (a spicy, spreadable pork salumi), anchovies and olive oil was simply divine. The salty and fatty nduja underneath was the perfect complement to the chargrilled, blackened octopus that was as smoky and crisp on the outside as it was tender on the inside.
And then there was my favourite dish of the night. Equivalent to an Italian version of the yum cha delicacy chee cheong fun, Osteria Ilaria’s flat and thick paccheri was topped with small slivers of crystal bay prawn, infused with the accompanying prawn oil and served atop a bed of pureed tomato and sorrel sauce. Again, the simplicity of the fresh produce shone through and each mouthful was a heavenly umami union of perfectly al dente pasta and a few key ingredients. I could have eaten an entire plate of this to myself, but contented myself with the two large tubes allotted to each of us. Osteria Ilaria is not a pasta bar, but you’d be remiss to not order this one.
Osteria Ilaria’s chickpea fries may have looked like polenta fries, but they were markedly richer and heavier – I enjoyed them paired with the generous dollop of black garlic aioli while apologising profusely to my stomach. The addition of black garlic to the aioli was the crowning glory of this dish, and I did not regret my decision to eat it.
I’d heard on good authority that the roast corn-fed duck on the mains menu was a must-order dish, but we went for the whole whiting with pippies and sea herbs instead. The fish was light and buttery, absorbing the pool of white wine, chilli and garlic that it was sitting in, while the pippies were an additional salty, savoury element. After the rich flavours of our preceding dishes, the fish was the perfect way to finish.
Except it was only I that had finished – Boneless Bestie and Indo Food Bud wanted to try the dessert menu and shared the panettone with cream cheese and berries between them. While they found it pleasant enough, they opined that Osteria Ilaria’s strength lay in its savoury dishes.
Even though I’d had mushrooms, wheat, onion and garlic – typically strict no-nos – my bloat score was remarkably low. And because of my abstinence from alcohol to commemorate ‘Dry-anuary’ (my less popular version of Feb Fast and Ocsober), I only ended up forking out $40 for the aforementioned dishes – a reasonable figure considering the variety of dishes we ordered.
Osteria Ilaria’s baby octopus and paccheri pasta are perhaps two of the best dishes I’ve eaten in Melbourne, so be sure to visit before it becomes another Tipo 00 where reservations have to be made two period cycles in advance.
Osteria Ilaria is open from 11.30am to 10.30pm Monday to Saturday.