Entering Cafe e Cucina for the first time is like stepping through a door that magically transports you to a little restaurant in Italy, or maybe a little place in Brooklyn. It's tiny inside, dark, and loud and there's a small army of dashing young men with Italian accents scurrying about between packed tables on the restaurant floor.
We're seated upstairs at the little corner table. The decor has the feel of Nonna's parlour, wood panelling and trinkets on the picture rail, a gold-framed picture of a cute old bicycle mounted on the wall beside our table - a table that's in such close proximity to the neighbouring one that Mr M complains repeatedly that the man behind keeps elbowing him in the back. It's all part of the atmosphere. I'm not entirely convinced that some of the waiters weren't bunging on those accents just a little, but MM thoroughly enjoyed the theatrics of it all regardless.
From the fairly traditional offerings on the menu we ordered two entrees to share. The Calamari Sant' Andrea has a feathery-light coating of flour and has been flash-fried perfectly so it's soft inside with just the thinnest crisp outer shell. It comes with rocket that's dressed in a creamy, lemony dressing. So far, so good.
MM thinks the Fiori de zucchini di fiori ripieni would have been just as good if it had reached the table as quickly as the calamari did. But sadly, it could be seen sitting at the servery station, waiting to be brought to our table. A few minutes earlier I suspect the batter would most likely have been crisp, and the cheesy insides a bit more luscious.
The ricotta-stuffed zucchini flowers had been battered and fried and were served with a gorgeous, vibrant little salad of baby tomatoes and oregano. But when it did eventually arrive the batter had lost any crispness it might have had, and gotten a little bit soggy in texture.
This little hiccup was forgiven as soon as MM's main arrived, the linguine di mare al cartoccio. The linguine with pipis, prawns, mussels, and scallops in a garlic, chilli and tomato sauce was cooked and served in a parchment paper parcel. The parcel was unwrapped at the table with a flourish to release the lovely aroma of garlic and fresh seafood.
It was a big, earthy, traditional pasta dish that was simple and hearty, both seafood and pasta cooked beautifully. Mr M also enjoyed his paccheri al ragu di agnello, or braised lamb, peas and pecorino romano.
He then went on to polish off his lemon profiteroles with a gusto, while MM watched in awe.
Walking back through the front door after an evening in that charming, frenetic little Italian world into the cool calm Melbourne night it was almost possible to believe we'd imagined the whole thing, that it didn't really happen.
Except for a couple of telltale little splotches of the linguine sauce that had made their way unnoticed onto MM's top. Most unlady-like, but a sure sign the pasta was enjoyed with quite a bit of enthusiasm. Fortunately it was dark enough in there that nobody would've noticed.