Pasta is my thing. I’ve been shovelling it down by the bucketload since I was a kid. I’ve sat in my nonna’s kitchen for hours perfecting the gnocchi roll and churning out sheets of lasagne on her manual machine. A part-time job at a deli taught me about the different shapes – filini and stelline for soup, pappardelle for a hearty ragu. And I thought I knew everything about specialty varieties from different regions – pici from Tuscany, trofie from Liguria and casarecce from Sicily. I’ve even aced Buzzfeed’s pasta-identification quiz. Multiple times.
So you can imagine my surprise when I sat down for a plate of casoncelli at new Bridge Road Italian diner Oster. It’s a kind of stuffed pasta from Lombardy, Oster chef and co-owner Nicola Romano’s hometown in northern Italy. The shell is made from two sheets of pasta about four centimetres long, pressed together at the edges – a bit like ravioli.
“There are two types of casoncello,” Romano tells me. “Casoncello di magro, the ‘skinny’, healthy option that’s filled with ricotta and spinach. And the grasso that’s filled with pork.”
At Oster, the casoncelli di magro are silky twisted pillows of pasta wrapped around spinach and ricotta that arrive under a cheesy cloud of whipped grana padano foam and topped with burnt butter and fried sage. It’s part of a weekly changing tasting menu that also includes a red capsicum risotto with black garlic and mullet bottarga, delicate blue swimmer crab with daikon, and crisp pork belly with baby broad beans.
These dishes illustrate Oster’s modern take on a traditional Northern Italian osteria (a place that serves local wine and simple food). All the produce – from artichokes to wine – is sourced locally, with an exception made for rice and pasta (“I’m a big fan of a dry pasta [over] a fresh pasta,” Romano says.)
Meat is from Andrew McConnell’s specialty butcher Meatsmith, and sustainable seafood guide Goodfish Project guides the seafood selection. Romano also forages for his own ingredients from time to time.
For dessert, a deconstructed lemon meringue tart is a stack of lemon curd (made with organic lemons from the duo’s neighbour Lizzie, butter from St David’s Dairy and eggs from family-run Ararat company Green Eggs), a disc of shortcrust pastry, a delicate Swiss meringue that’s flamed when plated, and some house-made raspberry sorbet. At lunch $27 will get you a bowl of pasta, a local wine and some tiramisu.
Romano has worked in kitchens all around the world – from Ireland and London to Spain and Italy. More recently he was running a pop-up restaurant called Chapter 53 with Oster co-owner Osvaldo Tognella.
“The dream of opening my own restaurant has always been there,” Romano says. “I always pushed my dad to open one, even when I was in Italy.”
After building up his experience around Europe, the chef moved to Australia. He spent six years working at local eateries here before Romano and Tognella (also born in Milan) – who met while working at now-closed Artusi in Southbank – finally landed the Richmond site.
The space was designed with help from Romano’s mother – an interior designer who flew to Australia from Italy to help. It’s dimly lit with concrete finishes and polished floorboards. Stripped-back rendered walls reveal the red brick underneath, and low-hanging pendant lighting creates a warm and welcoming feel.
76–78 Bridge Road, Richmond
(03) 9428 0749
Mon to Thu 7am–5pm
Fri & Sat 8am–11pm