I grew up believing that I didn’t really like Italian food, and rightly so. What I knew to be Italian food was my Aunty’s stodgy lasagne, the pasta was cardboardy, the filling so dense you could have knocked someone out by throwing a slice of it at their head (perhaps better then digesting it?). Or my mum’s spag bol, god bless her, somehow the spaghetti was always watery and the sauce dry, but it never did manage to balance itself out. And before I started shopping for myself I thought Parmesan cheese came in a plastic cannister and resembled bum fluff. So you can understand that until recently Italian food just wasn’t my schtick.
The veil was lifted for me when when I met V. She taught me that Italian food isn’t about the heaviness or creaminess so often found in a Lygon St carbonara, but the simple pairing of good quality ingredients, the foundation for all good cooking, and also about passion. Now there’s something I do know about Italians! V took me to an unpretentious eatery in North Melbourne called Sosta Cucina and it was there during my first bite of pappardelle with lamb ragu that I realised I had been cheated all these years and robbed of a lifetime of good, honest Italian food.
Fast forward a few years and my love for all things Italian has grown exponentially, I dream about eating pizza in Naples (thank you Eat, Pray, Love), gelato in Florence and pasta in Rome. But alas my dreary bank balance and impending mortgage repayment quickly extinguishes any romantic fantasies. Thank goodness I live in Melbourne where, for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the cost of a ticket to Italy, I can quench my desires for Italian food.
Enter Mama Baba, my old mate George Calombaris’ latest venture in South Yarra, where Italian Mama’s meet Greek Baba’s, and it’s all about the pasta.
Now as much as I like to think I’m not a food snob, I probably am, and as much as I like to think I’m not a Melbourne geography snob, I probably am. You see Melbourne is divided by a river and as a general rule those who like to be seen in designer threads and flashy cars stick to the South and those who like to ride fixies and dress in clothes from Vinnies stay North. Even though I live far, far North, almost to the point that it’s not even classified as Melbourne, I still identify in the later category, so dining South side is kind of a big deal! (See: Stuff White People in Melbourne Like and you’ll get my drift). In saying that I was more than willing to jump on a boat and paddle across the Yarra to get to Mama Baba for the promise of freshly made pasta and old-school cocktails.
Upon arrival my gaggle of girlfriends and I sip on fluorescent orange Negroni’s at the bar, I’m excited as the cocktail matches my new favourite lipstick colour! A DJ spins records to an eclectic crowd of funky families, couples on dates and groups of friends gathered in the warehouse style space. The black cutlery placed on the tables catches my eye, is it plastic? No, it’s just really awesome.
I love a restaurant where you can share food with your friends, and it’s hard to find a place that you can comfortably do that outside of Asian restaurants, but here the dishes are easily shared. To kick things off we order dishes that really do show-off George’s talents for observing and appreciating tradition but presenting them in a modern way, without being OTT. Polenta is served as chips that maintain the creaminess you’d expect from polenta, balanced with a sour cream and chilli soffritto ($5.50), the croquettes are filled with a delicious pairing of crab and sweet corn ($5.50) and unexpectedly sashimi-style Kingfish with pomegranate is on the menu, which is a very welcomed surprise.
For mains we order a variety of pasta dishes, a prawn saganaki tortellini ($28), a melt-in-your-mouth burnt butter, sage and walnut gnudi ($24) and a classic spaghetti marinara ($32). I’m a sucker for a marinara, but it’s one of those dishes that when ordered at a restaurant, it’s more often bad than good. My first anniversary dinner with my partner of five years was spoiled by an off scallop in a marinara, it may have also been because we were at a tourist restaurant at Phillip Island and it was a Monday night, but that’s another story. Refreshingly, Mama Baba's marinara rocks, it’s actually the best marinara I’ve eaten. The seafood is fresh and plentiful, the sauce is delicate and buttery and the pasta is text-book ‘al dente’. It’s a simple dish that when done properly is more than good enough reason to return again and again to Mama Baba. Sadly we do not indulge in dessert, which rarely happens, but Mama Baba’s cocktails are so good that my Pink Lemonade serves as a sweet fix.
The crew at Mama Baba have generously offered to share their yummy polenta chip recipe with you and me! I’m excited to give these a whirl, but more excited to go back to Mama Baba and sample some more delights, and cocktails! Enjoy x
PS: I must admit that mum’s spag bol is much better these days, she’d kill me if I didn’t say this! Love you Mama!
Get the Mama Baba recipe for Polenta Chips from Dani's website www.danivenn.com.