I must admit to not eating that much Italian food and even when I do its almost always pizza or pasta. I think it's a combination of living in the wrong part of town, being scarred by too many mediocre or worse Lygon Street meals and being scared of being Shanghaied into a near empty restaurant while walking through the streets of Carlton. However, with my mother in town to visit the nearby Tutankhamen exhibition and feeling like pasta we decided to try that Brunswick Street Italian institution, Mario's Café.
With its bright red neon sign, smartly dressed waiting staff, fairly basic tables and bottles and posters along the wall Mario's has an unpretentious, old-school feel to it. It wears its 25 years of business well, more worn-in than worn-out. Even on a rainy Tuesday it was well patronised for lunch, the slightly too close together tables resulting in a level of background noise so that it doesn't feel intimate, but not so loud as to make conversation difficult.
It was later than we had expected to arrive and so for starters we ordered the semi-obligatory garlic bread. Nicely crisp but not over toasted, it did its job of quieting a couple of empty stomachs while waiting for our more substantial meals.
While breakfast is available all day there are also a significant number of lunch options. On the day we visited in addition to the regular menu there was a small list of weekly specials including a braised steak and onion pie, served with rocket and a tomato relish. The pie was a good size for lunch, with firm but not hard pastry and very tender braised beef filling. Not something I'd really consider that Italian but a tasty and filling meal.
The Italian side came from the gnocchi with a creamy gorgonzola, chives and walnut sauce. Always filling, at its best gnocchi is a light and fluffy delight to eat but at its worst it forms a heavy, doughy mix that seems to sit like concrete in your stomach. I was a little concerned that this could be on the heavy side especially with a gorgonzola sauce but the dumplings were quite light, the sauce more creamy than cheesy and the walnuts provided a nice crunchy texture to break up the other softer elements.
Not somewhere for a first date but good, not too fancy food in a restaurant with a bit of personality. It was also quite funny to have someone else at the next table say to her companions 'See, other people take photos of food too'! The only thing I'd really change, based on our single visit, is it was a bit hard to grab the waitress' eye when we were ready for the bill.
Food - 7.5
Ambience - 7
Service - 7
Price - 7
303 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
Tel: (03) 9417 3343