Tourism Australia is making much of the new Baz Luhrmann movie, Australia, with its latest ads asking people to "go walkabout" and reconnect with their inner, lost selves by visiting Australia. Even Gordon Ramsay is heading Down Under, opening a branch of Maze in Melbourne's Crown Casino complex in 2010.
Ramsay knows that while spectacular rainforests and outback deserts are all well and good, the best food hugs the urban coastal fringes of this sunburnt country. By modelling itself on Las Vegas, Crown Casino has already snared the cream of Australian cheffery, including Rockpool's Neil Perry, Paul Bocuse-trained Philippe Mouchel, and the Sydney Opera House's Guillaume Brahimi, as well as being home to Nobu's first Antipodean outpost. I'm currently on walkabout here myself, camping out at its most intriguing new opening, Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons.
The "Sons" are Maurice Terzini and Robert Marchetti, the Italo-Australian team behind Sydney's ground-breaking Icebergs Dining Room and the rustic North Bondi Italian. But where their Sydney restaurants are open to the sea, sun, sand and surf, GAS, as it is known, is a secret, clubby, private space that just happens to be in a casino. Very Melbourne, that.
Billed as a "new millennium Roman trattoria", GAS is enormous, with five distinct Sicilian-tiled spaces flowing into and over each other. Lighting is dim, theatrically broken by spotlit food installations – here a shrine to breads, there a marble wine station, and in the middle, a shimmering, shiny, surreal glass display case of house-cured hams and salumi that is pure Damien Hirst.
If it sounds a bit Lost in Vegas, it's not. Instead, GAS feels molto simpatico, like a well-run wine-bar; a Baz Luhrmann-ed version of Rome's Roscioli. The whole no reservations, no tablecloths, no pretensions vibe is reinforced by the cutlery being clattered together in stainless-steel bins; staff cloaked in white shopkeepers' coats; and Terzini's dad, Arnaldo, hustling tables. Paper place-mat menus divide into Crudo, Offal, Pasta, Insalate, Panini, Formaggi etc, so first stop could be a bowl of warm, fruity Australian and Italian olives for £3 and last, a 400g Wagyu/Angus rib eye for £41.
The real drawcard is the salumi, made to Marchetti's specifications from Berkshire pigs bred for GAS on six farms spread across three states. Warmed, velvety soft, freshly sliced mortadella (£5) is a tongue-coating heart-stealing treat, while a plate of pink culatello (£7) is a delicate, dreamy hit.
The wine station is a modern-day equivalent of an ancient Roman water trough, with four great-value locally produced wines on tap served in carafes. As well, there is a starry array of great Italian labels including a plummy, spicy 2006 Prunotto Barbera d'Alba (£26). It could have been made for the gutsy rigatoni with pork sausage (£10), the coarsely packed zampone (stuffed pig's trotter, £11) or the darling little polpette meatballs (£6.50) of veal, pork and mortadella.
Only one dud occurs in three meals – a brave but ill-advised tripe frittata (£8). But the deep-fried golden baby school prawns (£7.50) crunch in the mouth like popcorn; a soupy bowl of surf clams, vongole clams, periwinkles and cured pig cheek (£10.50) is like a warm sea-water bath; and snapping-fresh cannoli pastries (£6.50), voluptuously stuffed with three sweet creams, make a spectacular finish.
GAS is a hothouse of great ideas, high detail and down-to-earth cooking, making the most of Melbourne's Italian heritage, Australia's increasingly excellent produce and the style and energy of its key players. It's very Italian-Australian, ancient-modern, rustic-glamorous, clever-simple, serious-casual; and a far better reason to visit Oz than reconnecting with your lost soul.
SCORES 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK 10-11 NEEDS HELP 12 OK 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH 14 GOOD 15 VERY GOOD 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons Riverside, Crown Complex, Southbank, Melbourne, Australia, tel: 00 613 9694 7400. Open daily, noon to midnight. Around £85 for two, including wine
The crunch bunch: Melbourne newcomers
45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, tel: 00 613 9650 1445
This bright and breezy newie from busy-busy local star Andrew McConnell is a must-visit, if only for the iconic salt-cod soup with its topping of parsley cream
Movida Next Door
164 Flinders Street, Melbourne, tel: 00 613 9663 3038
Not just a handy bar while awaiting a table at Frank Camorra's popular restaurant next door, but a destination in its own right, with terrific tapas and a great sherry list
285 High Street, Kew, tel: 00 613 9855 0505
Cesare Tabacco, one of the architects of modern Melbourne/Italian, strikes again with this classy Italian, serving inventive stuzzichini and well-crafted small plates