Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Café Di Stasio - Underbelly St Kilda

I can certainly attest to the fact that if you want to see some "characters" in Melbourne, all you have to do is head to Fitzroy Street in St Kilda once the sun goes down on a Friday night. The stretch of Fitzroy Street from Acland Street to Grey Street/Canterbury Road can be described as colourful, hectic and trashy which is certainly frequented by some eclectic characters. It is a bit like a human zoo and fortunately the hungry and thirsty can retreat into the oasis that is known as Café Di Stasio which is located near the Prince of Wales. A two-hatted restaurant as per the latest Age  Good Food Guide (2012-13) that is squeezed in between backpacker hostels, takeaway shops (that have picture menus on their window) and of course the local franchise of the cheap and sometimes not-so-cheerful La Prochetta.

Recently I had the pleasure of dining at Café Di Stasio as my learned friend and counsel resurfaced and made himself available for a dining experience. He owed me a proper dinner as the result of me picking up the tab when we recently visited PM24 (which I was not able to write about because I became too intoxicated and didn't clearly remember the wonderment provided in the last hour) and he suggested Café Di Stasio as we were meeting at The George Basement to catch up early in the evening.

The restaurant was happy to take an ad-hoc booking on this Friday night and they were seemingly pleased to accommodate us at 9:30 PM. When I opened the front door, which has bronze handles in the shape of the owners hands, Ronnie Di Stasio, which are both welcoming and ominous at the same time, the sheer volume of noise from the restaurant nearly pushed me back onto Fitzroy Street. Once I released the cold bronze however the welcoming gaze from the front of house beckoned us in. Being both hungry and thirsty, we were not thwarted and were led through the vortex of clambering guests into the back corner. Above us was a large Bill Henson photograph called Untitled #125, according to my later browsing of the Roslyn Oxley 9 gallery online. You may recall (as I do as I lived in Sydney at the time) that in May 2008, during the opening night of Bill Henson's 2007-08 exhibition at the aforementioned gallery in Paddington, Sydney, the exhibition was cancelled after complaints were made to NSW Police regarding concerns about an email invitation from the Gallery to a "Private View" that depicted photographs of a nude 13-year old girl. Regardless, this photograph was the focal point of the dining room and certainly kick-started the conversation. The photograph was from his 2000-2003 exhibition and had nothing to do with the controversy that was caused when Bill Henson visited St Kilda Primary School in 2007 to pick out potential models for his work. Interesting trivia to say the least.

Despite the loud buzz, the very interesting fit-out which included light beaming from faces from the wall and being approached by waiters in white jackets, I was amused if anything. The small design nuances were interesting to both search out and discuss, much like if you walk though the CBD and take the time to look up at the old architecture, you find curious things that you would usually not notice because you need to beware of trams and certain death. The super-efficient server in the white jacket was quick to take our drink orders and discuss the more enigmatic aspects to the menu. I opted for a simple yet perfectly made Negroni. I am so used to being put off by what potentially could be a wonderful apéritif because bar-staff tend to use excessive amounts of Campari, which overwhelms the gin and vermouth rosso. This was not the case here and I happily drank every last drop quickly and greedily.

As it was nearing 10:00 PM we were advised that we should place our orders as the kitchen was going to close. Fair enough. Moscardini Affogati (baby octopus slow cooked in red wine and chillies) ($29) was my first dish and considering the menu, it took some time to make this choice as there were so many dishes that seemed appealing. The octopus was unlike any other octopus that I have ever had the pleasure of having. Soft yet tender with a texture completely unlike what you would expect, if you have enjoyed octopus before. With the red wine sauce and the hint of chilli, this made for a magnificent first course. My learned friend opted for a bottle of 2010 Grosset Gaia (blend of 85% cabernet savignon and 15% cabernet franc) from a single site of the Clare Valley's highest altitude vineyard. It probably wasn't the best match for the beautiful octopus but went well with the sauce, however this choice was not the fault of the house and instead my highly ambitious and omniscient (sic) learned friend.

Considering the strengths of the wine, I opted for a main course of Spaghetti Salati (spaghetti with pork and beef ragout) ($36) and retired outside with my learned friend to discuss the meal, but also so he could enjoy a cigarette. It wasn't until he was nearly finished sucking back his third stick when the waiter appeared outside to advise us that our mains were on the table. I thought this was not only apt but professional. Why keep the dish under a hot light when it should be consumed as soon as it is plated up and presented. The spaghetti was just as amazing and beautiful as the octopus and this time the wine match worked well.

My biggest regret is not attending Café Di Stasio for the fabled long lunch and it will be a destination the next time that I have business to discuss and deals to secure. An oasis located in a sea of detritus makes attending this restaurant (strangely called a café so you get the feeling that they are over-delivering on all sensory fronts) which is considered a "Melbourne institution" for 25 years and counting not only a culinary adventure but a clash of art and subtle design nuances juxtaposed with the wild and wanton human zoo kept at bay only by the sheer strength of Robbie's bronze hands and of course the stern front of house. An adventure that I would happily undertake again.

Cafe Di Stasio, St Kilda, Melbourne

Café Di Stasio
31 Fitzroy St  St Kilda VIC 3182
(03) 9525 3999
My Rating: 16.25/20
Service: 3.75/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 4.5/5
Value For Money: 4.25/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

At the time of this post, 73% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Café Di Stasio.

Café Di Stasio on Urbanspoon

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