Turning off Chapel Street we break into a light jog along Toorak Road – it is pouring with rain and we are tempted to dive into the tried and tested spice temple that is Dainty Sichuan. But we persevere, passing South Yarra station (a first for us – we normally catch a glimpse of France Soir as we scooter by, but have never really explored this stretch) and reach our destination feeling more than a little bit bedraggled.
Happily, within seconds we are seated – him with a tumbler of negroni, her with a 250ml carafe of sangiovese – phew. Now a quick word about serving sizes and wine. Sometimes, 150ml just doesn’t do the job, but ordering more than a couple of glasses of wine feels excessive. And sometimes you want the same wine as your co-eater, but aren’t sure you can stretch to a bottle. Hoorah then for the tiny handful of restaurants that offer carafes. With 250ml and 500ml serves available, the gap between one glass and one bottle is bridged perfectly. The negroni slips down a treat and is swiftly followed by a stronger negroni (thanks bar people) and a bugiardo (gin, campari, chinotto, orange), which apparently means ‘liar’ in Italian. Although I have always found three cocktails in quick succession tend to have opposite affect, but each to their own.
In between trips to the bathroom to dry our hair, clothes and shoes, and downing drinks while agonising over a menu on which everything looks amazing, we do manage to take in our surrounds. The decor is clean and crisp – sketches and lines of text chart the classic tale of Pinocchio (the story by Carlo Collodi published in 1883, not the Disney derivation) and the idea of an artist’s studio is conveyed by the wall-mounted desk lamps (you know, the ones with the bending arms, like in the Pixar opening logo). The space manages to look modern and homely all at the same time – Melbourne’s funky take on the traditional trattoria.
Our waitress, Francesca, deserves a shout out. Just six weeks into her international adventures she hails from Le Marche and was a great source of information on regional specialities and ingredients. She also guided us through the menu in our moments of indecision – suggesting we start with an antipasti plate of pecorino, chunks of salty parmigiano, salami, San Daniele prosciutto, plump olives and caperberries. Accompanied by triangles of herby, fluffy focaccia, all our happy aperitivo memories of travelling in Italy came flooding back.
Why haven’t we heard about this place before? How has a restaurant so welcoming, serving food so tasty, completely escaped our noticed? We were beginning to doubt our food blogger credentials, when owner Renato came to our rescue explaining that Pinocchio’s previous incarnation was not as attractive as it is today. A bit dark, a bit behind the times, in need of a makeover. An honest critique, but this cheerful Italian clearly has nothing to worry about now.
Next, a selection of small dishes to share – ‘cicchetti’. Panino di agnello (sticky pulled lamb shoulder in a soft little panino with garlic aioli) and fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers stuffed with burrata and Morton Bay bugs, with a saffron aioli).
Flavourful crushed tomatoes really helped in the lamb dish, as the meat was super rich and dense (in a good way), while the zucchini flowers were a lighter contrast with the sweet seafood flavour working brilliantly with the creamy aioli and melted cheese. Delicately battered and perfectly cooked, we could have happily worked our way through the whole section of this menu, but decided instead to press on.
On to the pastas and a plate of agnolotti to share – a further dose of Morton Bay bugs and burrata wrapped in squid ink pasta and served in a rich lobster sauce with fresh peas that were bursting with just cooked, pop-in-your-mouth perfection. Worth pointing out that larger serves for parties of 2, 3 or 4 people can also be whipped up. Useful to know. Oh, and the pizzas can be prepared as half yard or yard length on a wooden plank.
It was a tough choice, but we decided to go for a pizza over one of the secondi dishes, although passing up the special – pork shoulder braised in Peroni Reserva beer with parmesan polenta – was a bit heartbreaking.
With more than 20 pizzas to choose from (not to mention bianca and calzone options) we were won over by the diavola – a yellow San Marzano tomato base (sweeter than the traditional red Roma variety) with hot N’duja salami (traditionally from Calabria, but Matt the chef sources his from a guy in Byron Bay), buffalo mozzarella and wild rocket. It really is very spicy, but too good to stop eating for a sip of water. After being caught out in the rain this is the perfect way to ward off any unwanted bouts of flu – it’s pizza to put hairs on your chest. We shared a regular (all are under $20 – bargain) but all pizzas are also available as ‘large’. We often fret about pizza bases being soggy, but we had no cause for concern here – some of the best pizzas in the city and cheaper than many of the more well-known places. Win!
Just when we thought we couldn’t go on and were contemplating a wobbly passeggiata home, the chef’s dessert tasting plate happened. Chocolate cannolo, crostata di limoni (wood-fired lemon tart with vanilla mascarpone) and panna cotta were gone before you could say ‘Geppetto’.
Once in while, you stumble upon a place that genuinely impresses – a place you know you will revisit time and again regardless of glitzy new openings. With 40 years already under their belt, the team at Pinocchio finally have the space they deserve to really shine. And that’s no lie. (Stop groaning – nearly 1000 words and only one Pinocchio-related cliche? Consider yourself lucky. I had a whole load of stuff about being a ‘real boy’ and ‘got wood’ lined up…)
By the way – for die-hard Baysiders, there is another Pinocchio in Hampton.
152 Toorak Road South Yarra
Ph. (03) 9867 2772