Where: Pentolina, 2/377 Little Collins Street Melbourne
What: The best gluten-free pasta
Who: Papa Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Pesce-pork-tarian
Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream
It’s not a dinner out with my parents unless it’s an Italian dinner, and thankfully I’d found somewhere new for us to try with Pesce-pork-tarian, my seafood-and-pork eating cousin who was down from Sydney.
The cosy and inviting Pentolina is tucked into an alleyway off Little Collins Street, easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it. Manned by Matt Piccone of Pellegrini’s fame, after his 19 years as a barista there, and his partner Julia Piccone, the restaurant has some serious Pugliese chops underpinning it. Unlike Tipo 00, you’ll get in with a moment’s notice and the pasta holds its own when compared against the numerous Italian foodie destinations dotted around town.
I decided to follow my intolerances, mostly because I’m due to fly shortly to Malaysia and Canada where I’ll be eating my weight in char kuay teow and poutine, so I chose carefully. The rice-loving Papa WFYB didn’t miss the chance to have rice – seeing Pentolina has no risotto on its menu – and ordered the eggplant and fior di latte arancini for $3 a pop while Mama WFYB, Pesce-pork-tarian and I each went for the $4 salted cod and potato croquette.
The crisp breadcrumb casing of the mini oblong croquettes gave way to a creamy mishmash of smashed potato and cod, with the cod providing a pleasantly salty aftertaste. I’ve tasted overly salty cod croquettes, but this one balanced the interplay between salty and sweet perfectly.
We also ordered the charred octopus with nduja, kipfler potatoes and cime di rapa oil. The highly umami and slightly spicy salami paste of nduja, which was the bed of this dish, was the highlight – I used the round spheres of potato to mop it up. The octopus itself had been chargrilled slightly too long, leading to a bitter aftertaste. Because Osteria Ilaria does such a superior octopus and nduja dish, I couldn’t help comparing this to that.
Most of the pastas were off limits to me due to my histamine-intolerance, but there were still a few I could have. The squid ink tagliolini pentolina with scampi, cuttlefish and fresh peas was an option, as was the saffron gnocchi with spanner crab, sorrel and preserved lemon. In the end, however, I opted for the broccolini, chilli, garlic and pangrattato conchiglie – replacing the wheat seashells for gluten-free pasta for an extra $2. For someone who doesn’t particularly eat much broccoli, I can never go past it on pizza or in pasta – my absolute favourite pizza is the broccoli, mozzarella, parmesan, chilli and lemon one at Kaprica.
For those with dietary requirements, Pentolina’s menu is well labelled. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are clearly marked with (v) and (vg) as are dairy-free dishes (DF) and gluten-free dishes (GF), although GF is a mainstay on most menus these days. Hot tip for the FODMAP-intolerant: Pentolina’s bolognese doesn’t have any onion in it, in the tradition of the bolognese that Matt’s parents taught him to make. Second hot tip for vegans: all pastas at Pentolina are fashioned out of egg-free flour mixtures of semolina and water.
Mama WFYB and I ordered the same dish, not that you’d guess from looking at pictures of both.
When my gluten-free version came out, it was a sea of green – Pentolina procures all its gluten-free pasta from artisanal producers Ardor Food Co and in this case, they’d prepared Ardor’s gluten-free spinach casarecce alongside the broccolini, prompting me to ask the gruff patriarch (who I believed to be Matt) wandering around the restaurant if they’d delivered the right dish, so different it looked to Mama WFYB’s version.
Matt brusquely allayed my fears, and then grumpily pointed out that there was already chilli oil in the pasta after I requested some. Not deterred, I requested chilli oil from another passing waitstaff who brought it over alongside some chilli flakes – both of which I added to my dish, much to Matt’s disgust when he walked by a few minutes later. He also only saw it fit to sprinkle parmesan over my and Mama WFYB’s dish, much to Pesce-pork-tarian’s dismay.
I loved my dish. The gluten-free casarecce was perfectly al dente and indistinguishable from regular full-gluten casarecce I’d had in the past, with its grooves catching the lashings of garlicky chilli oil it’d been cooked it. If I were to have one complaint, it was that the serving size was rather small for $23 – the dish barely touched the sides of my stomach, although it was a sublime feeling to not be bloated for once.
Mama WFYB enjoyed her equivalent dish with conchiglie, but commented that it could’ve used more chilli – a classic complaint from a South Asian person eating anything that is not South Asian. Papa WFYB admonished her and told her to enjoy the dish as it was intended: without excessive amounts of chilli.
Papa WFYB branched out from his usual order of risotto – mainly because there wasn’t any on the menu – and got the special of the day: rotolo. Rotolo is a Tuscan dish where flat sheets of buttered pasta, spinach, ham, parmesan and porcini are rolled up and baked in a tomato sauce. Papa WFYB was sold from the minute our waitstaff sold it to us as the ‘pasta equivalent of a ham and cheese toastie’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. He didn’t add one drop of chilli oil.
Pesce-pork-tarian commented on how fluffy her individual pieces of gnocchi were, liked that the saffron in the dish was noticeable without being overwhelming, and enjoyed the clearly discernible zestiness of the preserved lemon. Her only complaint was that some of the cartilage of the crab was still in her dish, which meant she had a pick a few remnants out.
Indian parents don’t get salad – Mama WFYB famously didn’t know what to bring to a Western salad potluck once, though she is au fait at cooking complex curries – and so they begrudgingly let me order the cos lettuce, avocado, salted ricotta and oregano salad. This was lovely and light, though I would’ve preferred more avocado than the few thin slices at the top and more oregano. We also needed a knife to cut through the lettuce, as it hadn’t been separated from its stems and was far too hard to slice apart with the supplied fork and spoon.
Mama WFYB ordered a side of chips which went down a treat. I didn’t touch them as commercial chips are sadly high in histamines; it is definitely one of the things I’m saddest about, apart from tomato and flavour.
Mama WFYB couldn’t go past the tiramisu for dessert, but wasn’t sufficiently impressed by Pentolina’s version. She didn’t feel like it had enough of a kick and thought the sponge fingers in the tiramisu needed to be soaked in more amaretto and rum. Pesce-pork-tarian was impressed by how well layered the mascarpone in the dish was.
Everyone but me also shared two cannolis with ricotta, candied orange and chocolate among themselves and enjoyed that.
Everyone was a big fan of Pentolina. My mum liked it better than Postmistress, which we’d visited a few weeks ago, and my dad was still raving about his rotolo hours later. The waitstaff were incredibly friendly – one even jotted down the brand of gluten-free pasta the restaurant uses for me after I enquired – and although I’ll have to surreptitiously ask for chilli oil when Matt isn’t looking, I’m willing to brave his wrath for another taste of that sweet, sweet gluten-free spinach casarecce.
Pentolina is open every day except Sunday from 12pm to 10pm.