Slow-cooked beef ragu begins simmering over the stove every morning at Zia Rina’s. As I walk in, the lingering smell brings up the nostalgia of a Sunday visit to nonna’s.
The ragu recipe belongs to co-owner and ex-Neptune head chef Danny Natoli’s nonno (grandfather), but the real hero of the tiny trattoria is his zia (aunt) Rina, who used to run the cosy eatery.
“She was like my cousin,” Natoli says. He remembers time spent together when they were younger. “Her mother and other aunties; they’d all be around the table at my nonna’s place making pizzas, making cavatelli [pasta], making gnocchi together.”
“Her dream had always been to have a beautiful little Italian restaurant that feels like someone’s home,” Natoli says.
Zia Rina’s Cucina is dimly lit. Terrazzo floors pave the space, flames from tealight candles dance on tabletops and the walls are stripped, giving the room a rustic, traditional trattoria feel.
“All the parts in the kitchen are made from old tomato boxes,” Natoli says. “We do a lot of our own pickles and preserves and stuff here, so we decorate the shelves with that.”
In 2010, Natoli travelled to Italy where he spent a couple of years working on an organic olive oil farm.
“We’d hand-pick 1000 kilos [of olives] over a couple of months and then press it up in the old Medici commune shared agricultural area,” Natoli explains. It’s this experience with artisan makers that has inspired the duo’s weekly trip to the Torello Farm on the Mornington Peninsula.
“We get all the produce from there. We buy onions, leeks, pumpkins … we only use what’s in season so that’s keeping with the whole Italian way of cooking,” Li says.
“If we find a really good brewery then that beer goes onto the menu next week,” Natoli adds.
The antipasti plate is a balance of traditional and non-traditional bites: ox tongue skewers, gnocco fritto (crisp, fried dough), grilled padron peppers with whipped bagna càuda (a Piedmontese dip-like dish of garlic, butter, milk and anchovies traditionally served with raw seasonal vegetables), and asiago cheese.
Spaghettini with nori butter and blue swimmer crab is an example of the subtle Japanese influence littered throughout the menu, as is culatello (salumi) with kombu-soaked walnuts and golden raisins.
A spring radish, cannellini bean and pesto salad has an earthy crunch, and there’s grilled asparagus with spring garlic and bottarga (fish roe).
For dessert, choose from the wattleseed cannoli with whipped ricotta, or affogato: coffee with chocolate gelato, served with a tiny flask of amaro to drizzle over the top.
Southern Italian wines are the focus of the wine list, with a mix of reds and whites from Sicily as well as Piedmont, Abruzzo, Puglia, Tuscany and Veneto. Local wines also make an appearance, including drops from Heathcote, King Valley and McLaren Vale available by the bottle, glass or piccolo (small glass).
“It’s just one of those memories that I have being all over Italy where you could walk in and just get a little piccolo or a small bicchiere [glass],” says Natoli. “[You can] try three different wines by the glass in a small format before you go into a bottle of something.”
Natoli and Li plan to make a small adjustment to the restaurant’s name from Zia Rina’s Cucina (kitchen) to Zia Rina’s Casa del Popolo (House of the People).
“I’ve got memories from a place similar in Italy. It was quite community-minded, called Casa del Popolo, and set up by the community to provide a haven for people to drink and eat,” Natoli says.
“We want to capture that same kind of focus,” Li adds. “We’re not those big restaurants turning people in and out. We want people to come in and stay for the long haul.”
Zia Rina’s Cucina
857 High Street, Armadale
Tue to Thu 6pm–10pm
Fri 12pm–3pm, 6pm–10pm