Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar

June 21, 2011

66 Bourke Street, Melbourne
I wanted to like Pellegrini’s. Oh, how I wanted to like it! My longing to approve was only surpassed by my ecstasy at finishing exams. Having survived yet another examination period, T and I strolled down into the city for some lunch. It was cold, we were hungry, and I’d been wanting to try Pellegrini’s for ages. I know it’s been on Bourke Street for over half a century, and I’m sure it has a colourful (and mafia filled??) history, but I cannot say I approved.
I will, however, say that the place oozes old style Italian cool. A long thin room dominated by a bar and several coffee machines, punters perched on bar stool munching down on huge plates of pasta and throwing back espressos. The barista, a man who looked about 70, was having a frenzied discussion in Italian with one of the customers (probably a mate/relative) when we walked in, so we were ignored for a few minutes. Then, THEN, two 20-something guys walk in, gave T and I a sideways glance, and step obnoxiously in front of us to make eye contact with another man behind the bar. With pursed lips and raised eyebrows I sidled around them and motioned to an elderly staff member that we’d like room for two.
“Where you want to sit, bella?”
“You want’a pasta? Anything, bella, anything you like an I’ll a make it for you!”
The staff at Pellegrini’s oscillate between flirting with you and ignoring you, so I wasn’t really sure whether to smile at them or gesture extremely obviously to get their attention. The other thing that got to me was the lack of women. When we sat down I think there was one lone woman sitting at the bar, the rest were men, mainly in suits, mainly over 30.
Enough about the staff and the other patrons. How was the food, you ask? Well, there isn’t a menu, so you pick from pretty much any combination of pasta/ sauce, or perhaps a bowl of minestrone, or one of the couple of specials they have up each day. To to be fair, the friendly member of staff who showed us to our seats helped T and I choose, and was joking and smiling at us the whole time (although not in a lecherous way)
Then, literally five minutes after we ordered, our food arrived, which makes me think the sauces are sitting in giant pots in the kitchen, and the pasta is already half cooked when the orders come through. The first thing I’m ready to put up with, because in some cases making the sauce from scratch would be very difficult to manage, and quick service is obviously their thing here. But the idea of half-cooked pasta, sitting in tubs, waiting to be thrown into the pot for another five minutes just grosses me out. That shouldn’t be right. I’m perfectly happy to wait 20 minutes for the chef to cook a fresh batch of pasta, so why is this so hard to implement?
T had spaghetti with a meat and tomato sauce. I had ravioli with a basic Napoli sauce. But the sauce wasn’t that great, in fact I’m sure I could make a tastier sauce myself. And the plate displayed the level of food styling you’d expect from a 7 year old. The good news? You get bread to mop up the excess sauce with, the serves are huge, and all pasta dishes are quite cheap at $15. The pasta was cooked al dente, I’ll give them that, but it just didn’t override the sinking, disappointing feeling I got.
Does the fact that this place is over 50 years old excuse it from serving average food? In my opinion, I don’t think so. Google Pellegrini’s and you’ll see a review in The Age saying how the pasta may not be great, but the place is a “Melbourne Institution” and has earned it’s place in our humble city. Mmmm, no, sorry, I don’t agree with that reasoning. If something is below par, and has been so for several freaking decades, why hasn’t anyone cottoned on/taken a stand? I think that, because they’re so old, and it seems like there’s so much old blood running through the place, they figure if it worked in 1961 it’ll damn well work in 2011. They obviously don’t care that in the meantime the restaurant scene in Melbourne has grown and become infinitely more sophisticated, and customers feel like they deserve something a little sexier (or at the very least tastier) on their plate.
Yes, I was flattered to be called “bella” repeatedly, but overall I was disappointed with Pellegrini’s (and you have no idea how disappointing it is for me to say that). At the end of the day, I’d rather pay $6 more to get a really fabulous, flavoursome and exciting pasta dish than something decidedly below par. And I feel that the argument of “earning your place on the foodie scene and thus not needing to serve good food” is ill-contrived, especially given the high quality of restaurant food in Melbourne. Poor form Nonno e Nonna, poor form.

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Filed under: Italian, Melbourne CBD