Donnini's: The Only Place You Need to know on Lygon Street
Address: 320 Lygon Street, Carlton
Phone: (03) 9347 3128
Open: Daily, midday until 10pm
In 1953, Lygon Street's University Café had hungry punters lining up to get their hands on a piadina, a traditional Italian flatbread with crisp, blackened bubbles loaded with salty prosciutto and clouds of buffalo mozzarella. Later, the owners turned their attention to their namesake restaurant, Donnini’s. Now in its 34th year, Donnini’s is in the experienced hands of Marco Donnini, a third generation restaurateur who continues the family tradition of blessing Lygon Street with homely, Italian fare.
Lygon Street isn’t exactly synonymous with ‘gourmet’, ‘trendy’, or for that matter, ‘Epicure’. Self-proclaimed food lovers steer clear from the strip, unless it’s to get their hands on a deliciously overpriced Helados Jauja Argentinean ice cream. Most of the eating happens on parallel Drummond Street: the relaunch of Markov Beer & Dining, the opening of The Town Mouse earlier this yeappetr and the ever-popular pizza place, D.O.C. But those who dare to venture down Lygon Street past sleazy restaurant spruikers and youths in hooker heels with fake Louis Vuitton will stumble across its saving grace: Donnini’s Restaurant.
Donnini’s is a hearty does of old school hospitality, the way it should be. I sat down to lunch with Marco, the owner, and chatted about the tough reality of running a restaurant that’s been open for more than five years. It began, like all good Italian conversations do, with vino and carbs. Baked Tuscan flatbread known as covaccino was paper-thin, laid with salty strips of prosciutto di San Daniele that hid baby artichoke hearts. Marco excused himself as he explained the origin of the entrée, peeling back the prosciutto with his fork to check if his kitchen staff had cut them to his standards.
The famed piadina vitello tonnato was next. Slivers of pink roast veal, tuna mayonnaise and verdant roquette were wedged between charry Romagnolo flatbread – the type of dish you simply won’t stop eating until it’s gone.
It’s the quality of the produce and the faithfulness to traditional dishes that make Donnini’s an old favourite. Businessmen chatted over quartinos (250ml) of wine and piadinas; students from nearby Melbourne university flicked through the menu and landed on the under $15 specials such as soup of the day; while others lost themselves in a solo dining experience, enjoying private bliss with each mouthful of Donnini’s famous pasta. It’s a sin to leave without trying some yourself.
The tris di pasta Donnini – a selection of three – is a safe option. You’ll get to indulge in gnocchi, tortelli di ricotta and tagliatelle al ragu nostro. I swapped my three choices around a touch. Luscious pillows of gnocchi were doused in a simple sauce of fresh basil and slightly chunky, acidic tomato. Chubby tortelli stuffed with spinach and ricotta arrived swimming in cream of mascarpone. Butternut pumpkin and almond ravioli came dripping in melted butter and dotted with crisp-fried sage leaves, so sweet it almost passed as dessert.
We rested our stomachs for a while and discussed restaurant relevancy. With so many opening in Melbourne every week, how do you stay significant? There was a time when $24 mains were the standard. Now, with concept eateries flaunting po’boys and ramen in isolation, diners are only willing to spend a maximum of $15 per head. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to stay true to decades of tradition, the same tradition that introduced Italian cuisine and culture to Melbourne.
For Marco, the secret lies in service and family. The two are related, you see. His waitstaff are his family, literally and figuratively. The customers are his family, and numerous people slink up to shake Marco’s hand and personally thank him before they continue their day. Every person that walks through the door receives a verbal welcome, smile or nod from Marco. These days, you’re lucky if someone remembers the coffee you’ve been ordering four times a week for six months.
On the topic of memory, it wasn’t until the roast half Milawa duck cooked in Campari was placed on the table with a cheeky grin that I remembered just how much Italians enjoy feeding their guests. Balanced on a bed of spinach, the perfectly cooked bird was studded with juicy blood orange segments and drenched in a sweet orange reduction.
Later, as my spoon descended through the layer of orange caramel to the silky orange bavoir mousse below, I realised that in the midst of trends and hype, we’ve forgotten the true meaning of hospitality: “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers”, according to the Oxford Dictionary. It’s a definition that aligns much more with Italian culture, respecting customers and Donnini’s than it does with hipster baristers, queuing three hours for a table and finding food trucks via Twitter. I’m all for new openings and creative dining concepts, but ever now and then, it’s nice to be really, truly looked after.