822 High Street
Thornbury, VIC 3071
My mum is an excellent cook. She can make braised pork belly better than any restaurant, pleat dumplings with the best of them, and once she made a perfect beef rendang, from scratch, on her first go. But with all that said, every now and then I do wish that she knew how to cook like an Italian nonna. Incredibly ungrateful of me I know, but I just can’t help but imagine my mum’s prodigious cooking skills turned to deep, hearty bowls of pasta.
Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for my waistline), I am 100% positive that that will never happen. So until I get my act together and learn to make some really good pasta, I just have to settle for going out to eat. And whilst there’s nothing quite like the perfect pasta served up at Tipo 00, there’s something to be said about having home-styled pasta at a place like Umberto Espresso Bar.
If you know Pellegrini’s – and you have to know Pellegrini’s – then you’ll have no trouble recognising the likes of Umberto Espresso Bar. Opened over 50 years ago by none other than Umberto, this is a traditional pasta bar that seems perpetually stuck in the 60s. The long, narrow dining room is decorated with vintage newspaper clippings singing the restaurant’s praises, there are specials scrawled on blackboards in Italian, and the rickety tables are, of course, crammed much too close together. An espresso machine on the bar counter is a must.
The special of Saltimbocca Alla Romana ($26) caught my eye, and although it doesn’t look like much, these tender veal cutlets, stuffed with cheese and basil and smothered with a rich tomato paste, were nothing if not delicious. Enjoy it with the crisp side salad of iceberg and fennel, and ask for some bread to mop up the sauce.
But what I was really keen on was the Spaccatelli Carbonara ($19). I’ve never had a proper carbonara before, and I have to admit that this was a little bit of a religious experience. The chewy pasta strands were stirred through with a sticky sauce of nothing but cheese and eggs, and flavoured with smoky, fatty pancetta and flecks of onion. The result was a rich, salty bowl of comfort food that was nevertheless neither heavy nor cloying. I’ve probably thought more about carbonara since eating this than I have in the whole of last year.
The dessert of Cinnamon Panna Cotta ($12) is also pretty special. The custard was indulgently thick and creamy, the sweetness intermingling with the warmth of cinnamon. Decorated with a scattering of pistachio praline, bitter orange syrup, and segments of fresh orange, this was once again simple but perfect.
In a climate where the best Italian restaurants have focused on lifting the cuisine into something elegant and sophisticated, home-styled cooking like this tends to take a bit of a back seat. However, Umberto Espresso bar proves that you don’t need any of the frills to charm the masses. Its combination of hearty, delicious Italian food and old-school vibe is enough to ensure that the restaurant is packed to the rafters on any given night. It may be humble, but there is plenty to love about Umberto.
Rating: 14/20 – unassuming umberto.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.