[edit - 20 June 2011]: sometimes I wonder why I wrote sh*t like this. Pellegrini's coffee is horrible, and the pasta, well, it's "nostalgic" yes, like macaroni in soup in Hong Kong is - it's not exactly the pinnacle of pasta dishes... Anyway, that's what a blog is for isn't it, so you can reminisce and cringe.
Mother's day has come and gone, and as with the past four or five years, I've spent it without the day's protagonist, my mother. It's at times like these that I miss her most, her cooking in particular (a skill she now rarely displays as she has long since transferred it to our maid in Hong Kong, but that's another story), with that snuggly warmth that even the best restaurants could not reproduce.
Luckily, I've found an adoptive mother in Melbourne. She's Italian and she makes me hearty meals whenever I pay her a visit in her little corner bar at the top of Bourke Street in the City.
For all I know, my "mamma" at Pellegrini's could be a twenty-five year-old male chef working in the kitchen out the back, but when the plates of pasta are dished out, I can't help but imagine that they are the creations of a middle-aged lady in a paisley apron who sings sweetly as she stirs the garden-fresh napolitana sauce into my perfectly al dente penne.
The dish looks, smells, and tastes wholesome, thanks to the finely chopped celery, julienned carrots and melting globules of tomato that act as the base of this clean, minestrone-like sauce. It¡¯s not cloying in the least, and strikes just the right balance of acid and salt with the fresh sweetness of the vegetables. Simple yet satisfying.
The dish is plenty for one, and could probably be shared between two if you weren't too hungry, and a lot of the time I intend to do so. But for some bizarre reason, as soon as the Papa-esque gentleman serves me my plate with a "Grazie, Bella", my arms wrap around the warm plate like a fortress on the wooden bar table as I hiss "Mine! Mine!" like a five year-old.
The same happens when I order the risotto primavera, a non-creamy rendition of this rice dish that uses long grain rice. Again, it is moistened by a light, tomato-based broth dotted with peas, carrots and other vegetables. It is yet another formidable dish.
The use of cream is negligible in these dishes, if any was used at all. Its addition would only have undermined the natural balance of flavours in the sauces.
The menu of mains is brief, and all the available dishes are listed on one side of the wooden noticeboard stretching across the middle of the narrow seating space. It will have several pasta basics such as lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli and spaghetti bolognaise along with other interesting dishes such as mozzarella bolognaise, which by my translation, seemed to mean just cheese and sauce. As it turns out, it is actually a thick slice of bread smothered in a rich bolognaise sauce, something that even the pickiest of my dining companions was pleased with.
If you were generous enough to share your main meal, you may have space left for some tiramisu or other sweets beckoning to be devoured, on display at the lower end of the bar. If not, one of Melbourne's best coffees, or their super-sour lemon granita, awaits.
The dining space essentially consists of two lines of bar stools, as well as a communal dining table at the back. Despite the extremely narrow space, the bar stools are surprising comfortable and I personally have spent many an afternoon (and evening) sitting facing the mirrored wall, chit-chatting away while relishing a delightful pasta, with intermittent strikes of fear that Mamma will come out to tell me off for speaking with my mouth full.
Instead, after I recite my meal (so they can work out my bill), the waiter behind the bar makes me blush and giggle as they give me my change, along with a wink and a mischievous "Ciao Bella!"
Though I have no childhood memories of growing up in an Italian village, Pellegrini's food is nostalgic. And at their friendly prices, you can feel free to visit Mamma whenever you need a bit of homely warmth.
Pellegrini's Espresso Bar
66 Bourke Street
Tel: 9662 1885
Open: Mon-Sat 8am-11.30pm; Sun noon-8pm