Friday, October 7, 2016

Italian Chef, South Yarra (by invitation) by Benny

It’s a cool Friday evening in South Yarra, and we are in the very capable and friendly hands of our waiter Giuseppe. Giuseppe is not just a good waiter; he is a great waiter. He knows each of the dishes on the menu intimately – how it is cooked, its key ingredients and flavours. Most importantly, he passionately engages with diners to discern their tastes and culinary desires to make perfect recommendations. Bilby Blue and I are here by invitation and our fascinating discussion ranges widely over traditional Italian cuisine, the corruption of those traditions (think pineapple on pizza and parmesan on seafood pasta), and that innovation need not corrupt a cuisine, but can honour tradition.

slow cooked pork belly with truffle and mash
Slow cooked pork belly with truffle and mash

On his recommendation we follow Italian tradition and settle at our table with an aperitif – a refreshing mix of Campari, orange, sparkling wine and soda – while we take in our surroundings and contemplate the menu.

Italian Chef is a typical, modern bistro: you enter past a bar and a glass counter showcasing fresh produce and an enticing array of desserts; and an open kitchen allows customers to observe all of the dishes as they transit the pass, on the way from kitchen to table. We are immediately impressed by the presentation and the generous servings.

Behind Italian Chef is a distinguished family and culinary history that leads back to Northern Italy and Mario Vigano, the founder of the much-loved Melbourne restaurant Mario’s back in 1932. He was a pioneer of Italian cuisine in Melbourne, and his descendants include more recent food icons such as the famed Mietta O’Donnell. Italian Chef sees his great granddaughter, Roberta, rising to culinary prominence. With such a celebrated heritage, expectations are high.

The menu consists largely of classic Italian dishes offering lots of temptation spiced with a bit of intrigue: ‘Polpette della nonna’ is ‘grandmother’s meatballs’, and who would doubt the food of an Italian grandmother, especially from the Vigano family; all pasta is made in-house, and includes gluten-free options; today’s fish of the day is an innovative parmigiana highlighting John Dory; and ‘tortelli di cioccolato’ is not a dessert, but a savoury pasta dish combining chocolate with braised duck.

funghi croccanti
Under Giuseppe’s guidance we decide to share an entrée of funghi croccanti accompanied by a classic focaccia, but can’t decide on our mains – the decision is between the aforementioned tortelli di cioccolato, the fish of the day, and another of the daily specials: a slow cooked pork belly with truffle and mashed potato (see first pic). To resolve the indecision, Giuseppe offers us an entrée sized portion of the tortelli to share. We gratefully accept.

rocket pear, pecorino salad
What about a side salad with our mains? Giuseppe recommends the rocket, pear and pecorino cheese salad with honey dressing. We’re not keen on the honey, so he suggests we substitute a balsamic dressing. Sounds good.

The classic focaccia (oven baked with olive oil, rosemary and salt) is thin, crisp and delightfully savoury, the intensity of the rosemary and salt just right (other flavours are available). Although we are not sampling the pizza tonight, the quality of the focaccia tells us that the pizza bases here would be excellent.

Funghi croccanti (big flat mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella cheese and crispy Italian pancetta, served on a bed of Italian rocket with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil) is a large serve with plenty for two to share. They are very tasty, the rocket deliciously coated in the pancetta and mushroom juices.

tortelli di cioccolato
Tortelli di cioccolato (chocolate tortelli filled with braised duck served in a mushroom sauce with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese) is the highlight of the evening – delicious house-made pasta encasing a rich braised duck filling. The chocolate is very subtle, adding a wonderful complexity to the dish rather than an overt chocolate flavour.

john dory parmigiana
John Dory parmigiana (tender fillet wrapped in super thin eggplant slices, crumbed, and served with pumpkin mash and a house-made tomato sauce) is delicious. The sauce and mash are served cold, which is a bit of a surprise, but it all works very well, the fish cooked perfectly, the mash mixed with ricotta and delicately flavoured with orange.

The pork belly has been slow cooked (sous vide) for 24 hours and then the skin crisped for serving. It is wonderfully tender and juicy. The dark sauce is strongly flavoured with truffle and while I initially find the combination of truffle and pork belly a little strange (as I am more accustomed to Asian-style pork belly), after a few mouthfuls I am a convert. It is marvellous.

The rocket, pear and pecorino cheese salad with balsamic dressing is a fine accompaniment and would be tasty just by itself.

For dessert we share a traditional tiramisu and a pistachio cheesecake. The tiramisu is exactly as you would expect: creamy and luxurious with a light hit of liqueur under a strong hit of coffee.

pistashio cheesecake
The pistachio cheesecake is another triumph: a base of crushed chocolate coated biscuit that I could eat just by itself; a filling that is lighter than I normally expect from a cheesecake, but with a lovely flavour and topped with a layer of chocolate.

limoncello shots
Can there possibly be more? Complimentary shots of house-made limoncello. This limoncello has an earthy allure above that of the more refined commercial brands we have tried, redolent with the flavours of the whole lemon, including the pith and the rind. Bilby finishes her shot, but I have to drive home.

italian chef interior

italian chef exterior


We loved it
We loved it. There are so many dishes on the menu that we really want to try, plus the pizzas, so we are definitely returning.


Italian Chef serves great traditional Italian dishes full of flavour, but will also push those boundaries, respecting the traditions while producing marvellous food experiences. The service is excellent, and we strongly recommend that you consult with Giuseppe when ordering, especially if you are going to share.

Italian Chef is open Monday-Thursday from 5pm, Friday from 11:30am, and weekends (and public holidays) from 9:30am until late. It has private rooms and a courtyard dining area is also available.

Find it at

Italian Chef
427 Chapel Street
South Yarra, Vic 3141
Phone: (03) 9827 0048

Italian Chef Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

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