On Saturday night we had a spontaneous meet-up with my aunt Carol and family friend Jens for dinner and a movie. We floated Thai, Vietnamese and Indian as options, but Jens had a hearty appetite and a preference for Italian so I suggested we try to get a table at Cafe Italia. Set in a laneway away from the spruikers on Lygon St, it still has no trouble attracting diners through its closed doors. In summer the open courtyard is delightful and in winter the same area is snugly closed up, housing just as many people.
Cafe Italia's menu is adequate for vegetarians if not inspiring. There's bruschetta or dips to start, plenty of side dishes, four pasta plates and a pizza on offer. Disappointingly the mushroom risotto is made with non-vegetarian stock, but the waitstaff are clued up enough to know that kind of thing. (On a previous visit a waiter offered, without any provocation from me, to find out what kind of stock was in the soup of the day. I was impressed.)
We concentrated on the main courses but it took very little coaxing from our waiter to have us start with a pizza aglio (sliced garlic, sea salt, rosemary and olive oil, $6.50). It was the perfect portion to share amongst the four of us; so hot and fresh and salty, leaving me appetised and keen for the next round.
Michael ordered the agnolotti (jumbo spinach ricotta pasta with napoli sauce and shaved parmesan, $19.50). While he enjoyed it, he was disappointed that it didn't quite fill him (and at that price). Before I was half way through Michael was already casting scheming eyes over my plate!
It was full of fettucine pesto (fresh basil, pine nuts, a touch of cream and cheese, $17.50). While it was a bit oily, I couldn't get over the soft tenderness of the pasta - one of the best I've ever eaten. (Between my meals here and at the Corner, I may have to rethink my skepticism of restaurant-prepared pasta.) Even so, I didn't mind sharing a bit with Michael since it left open the possibility of dessert.
In particular I'd heard good things about Cafe Italia's tiramisu ($10.50) and bullied Carol into sharing a piece with me. It was the real deal, and the ideal pick-me-up before embarking on our late movie session.
I wouldn't strongly recommend Cafe Italia to an adventurous vegetarian, particularly given that Shakahari is only a short walk away. The menu doesn't offer any surprises and the prices are a little steep. Yet the food and surrounds are a world of quality away from the Lygon St hussle. It's a pleasure to share it with carnivorous company.
Address: 56-66 University St, Carlton
Ph: 9347 0638
Prices: veg mains $16.90-19.50