234B Russell Street
|Opening hours||Dinner Wed-Sat|
|Features||Accepts reservations, Licensed, Family, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (dishes $20 to $40)|
|Call||03 8413 2970|
When it comes to Italian food, my opinions are strong. And if there’s one thing I’d like to shout from the rooftops of Melbourne, it would be this: we have our own Italian culture! Stop copying Italian-American cuisine, itself a by-product of immigration, while ignoring the greatness of what our own history has created.
Why do we want to be someone other than ourselves? If I have to forgive this trend, it would be in the company of Michael and Zara Madrusan, owners of the group Made in the Shade.
Heartbreaker, which they opened downstairs on this site in 2015, has always sought to evoke the special magic of an American bar, something truly unparalleled in Australian history.
(Why should it be, when we have all sorts of ads imaginable?) Connie’s, named after Michael’s grandmother, was originally the name of the pizza storefront operating out of Heartbreaker. This pizza was rightly based on an American joint and became a late night legend.
So it stands to reason that if the owners were looking to expand, they would stick to the Americana theme. Connie’s Italian Diner, which sits just above Heartbreaker, does the job of conjuring up a joint of New Jersey red sauce almost too well.
Red vinyl booths, dim lighting punctuated by the flicker of disco balls, nostalgic ’80s posters — even the leaden shades on the lights above the booths are playfully authentic.
The kitchen offers a menu that is as flexible as it is fun. There are plenty of snack-friendly options, such as savory donuts, called zeppole, with anchovies ($8) or fried provolone with a tangy red sauce ($11). The veal tonnato ($16) is a reassuring classic, the tender meat in a creamy tuna sauce punctuated with crispy capers.
The pizza, which Connie launched during lockdown as a take-out option, is described as a “grandma’s pie”, which may be a nod to Connie herself or may refer to the known style of pizza as Grandma’s Pie in New York and beyond: a thick-crusted rectangular pizza that Italian-American grandmothers made at home.
I’ve also seen Connie’s pizza compared to Detroit-style offerings, but do we really care where the inspiration comes from if the result is delicious? And it is: cheesy, crispy, sassy and, if you order the carne pizza ($30), loaded with pepperoni, fennel sausage and prosciutto.
The spaghettini alle vongole ($35) is packed with all the wine-soaked ocean magic you hope for, the pasta perfectly al dente. Does the dish seem a bit pricey for its simplicity and portion size? Maybe. I might opt for the mussel and clam fondue instead ($28), which has the same white wine broth magic, with a side of sourdough bread to mop it up.
If there’s one thing I didn’t expect from Connie’s it was that it was too restrained, but there are places on the menu where presentation seems to take precedence over flavor.
The best thing about chicken alla cacciatore ($26) is usually the effortless stew, with the tomato, olives, and chicken creating magic in their mix. Here, the chicken is served on a square of polenta, the sauce served around. I missed the gloppy magic of the original.
But, oh, the glory of the very silly tirami-sundae ($16), a mash-up I’ve never seen before, but wish I had. It’s tiramisu with a vanilla soft serve on top, but it becomes more than the sum of its parts, the ice cream imbuing the dessert with a raucous sense of childhood fun.
The back room has a dance floor between the tables and the atmosphere is 100% festive, even at the start of the evening. Don’t come here if you’re looking for a quiet evening: it’s a place for loud gatherings.
In summer, there will be no better place to spend a wild night than on the roof terrace. (This joint serves French 75s, a cocktail made with gin, champagne and lemon juice, by the pitcher for $85. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?)
It might be tempting to think of Connie as what happens when Heartbreaker grows up, but don’t worry – there’s no growth going on here. Just lots of joy, lots of sauce and a good time.
Vibe New Jersey Italian Red Sauce Seal, circa 1985
Essential dish Meat Pizza
Drinks The focus is on cocktails, but with a short and fun wine list too
This review was originally published in Have a nice week end magazine
#Review #good #time #Connies #Italian #Diner