Va Tutto restaurant in Ivanhoe, a leafy North East suburb of Melbourne is an icon. Operated by husband and wife team, Paul and Myrto Recinella, Va Tutto is currently in its twelfth year; its fine food heritage going back a further 16 years, as the pair previously operated Zeo’s in East Melbounre. Achieving The Age Good Food Guide one hat status for 7 years in a row, Paul explains that continually working to meet this, though ‘nerve racking’, was a requirement to compete in the CBD restaurant market. While the quality of food and service at Va Tutto remains excellent, Paul admits that he loved moving out to Ivanhoe.
‘I think as you get older you just cook because you just love to cook and look after people; I’m no longer interested in winning hats – they can keep them!’ he says. ‘Zeo’s was formal fine dining, and while we also offer fine dining options at Va Tutto, I could also be preparing just a schnitzel or a pizza – I love doing that well.’
This might sound like life is winding down for the Recinellas; however in January this year they tasked a frequenter of Va Tutto’s, Ilija Karlusic of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA Melbourne), with completely refurbishing the restaurant. Known worldwide for its hotel and restaurant designs and locally for the dramatic interior of Melbourne’s Estelle by Scott Pickett, HBA’s direction is subtly beautiful. Contemporary and comforting, the clean modernist-square edge design is complemented by the calming warmth of soft neutral tones – crisp whites, golds and charcoal. Stepped, backlit ceiling panels frame the formal dining area where the banquette and dining chair seating, featuring plush wool upholstery, add welcoming comfort. Zed Macinkovic at Melbourne’s Domain National managed to transform Va Tutto in just four weeks. An astonishing turn around that allowed the Va Tutto team to re-open on time after returning from their annual January break. Domain National is a specialist in commercial fitouts, having completed major interior building projects for Burma Lane Restaurant, Estelle by Scott Pickett, Pickett’s Seli and Rotisserie at QVM Rod Laver Arena and more.
The restaurant is cleverly divided into four spaces: there’s a wine and cocktail bar and casual bistro-grill dining area adjacent the High Street entry foyer, with the wrap-around bar separating both the formal dining area and the luxurious sound-proof private dining/function room – complete with floor to ceiling glass wine cabinets at the rear.
Table service begins with a chorizo and buffalo mozzarella arancini with peppered mayonnaise, plus a selection of house baked breads – Va Tutto bakes twice daily using premium Caputo flour from Naples. The dough proves for 48 hours in the cool room, a slow fermentation method that adds to the complexity of flavour of the bread, also making it easier to digest.
Given the early autumn season of my visit, fried zucchini flowers are on the menu. These are filled with a French-style chèvre goat’s cheese and freshly made pesto. Though the more filling option if compared to the lighter seafood mousse, the freshness of the pesto sings perfection. The zucchini flowers rest atop a beautifully presented salad of fresh and semi-dried cherry tomato, green and yellow wax beans, Spanish onion, kalamata olives, basil leaves and pomegranate. A smearing of roasted beetroot and lemon mayonnaise adds even more colour. The dish is the ultimate display of freshly grown vegetarian eye candy that tastes as good as it looks.
Va Tutto in Italian roughly translates as ‘anything goes’, which is fitting as Paul’s menu features a wide range of dining options, including: Modern Australian, Asian influenced (even a dumpling menu) and classic Italian mains, pasta and pizzas. It’s a big choice: however astonishingly, everything Paul and his team put their culinary minds to is lovingly perfected. One example is the Duck Trilogy – considered by some as Va Tutto’s hero dish – it’s one that I particularly enjoyed. The three parts include a rich and sticky honey-glazed duck breast that’s tender, juicy and flavoursome. This is served with a richly fragrant twice-cooked master duck-leg stock and a lighter-tasting duck and truffle dumpling with a soy and ginger dressing. Paul’s master stock, made with dried mandarin peel, coriander root, szechuan pepper, shaoxing and many more secret ingredients, is one of the hallmarks of the establishment – unexpected, but non the less brilliant.
Where Va Tutto also excels is with seafood, and it’s delivered twice daily. Rare delights are common: grilled South Australian lobster and pearl meat that Paul says has a similar texture and delicacy to abalone – it’s delivered fresh from the Paspaley Pearl company in WA; as well as the amazingly buttery tasting Patagonian Toothfish. Branded Glacier 51, Toothfish it is a species of cod found in deep, cold waters near Heard island, an Australian territory in the sub-Antarctic 4099km South West of Perth. It’s a remote and dangerous fishery subject to gale force winds, horizontal snow, ten metre swells and few daylight hours. While this makes navigating the waters extremely complex, the fish are in abundance. The fishery is labelled sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, a UK based non-profit organisation which sets world standards for sustainable fishing.
I choose the fresh spanner crab meat on warm, toasted brioche fingers. The delicate crab meat is lightly folded through a lemon, chive and dill mayonnaise, adding a subtle depth of flavour and lifted fragrance. Arranged on the plate is an accompaniment of rolled cucumber ribbons and thinly sliced radish discs topped with cucumber pearls. Bright and fresh tasting lemon mayonnaise completes the dish, one that is impeccably presented and uses the very best in line-caught fresh spanner crabs. Paul explains that Va Tutto is one of only two restaurants in Melbourne bringing in live crabs, killing them in-house and carefully pickling the fresh meat. This ultimately leads to the sweetest tasting flesh, making this little entrée bite a class-leading dish. The crab is served with a 2017 Gapstead Riesling featuring cool climate King Valley fruit. Elegant with a clean and lively palate of nashi pears, citrus and crunchy apples, its fresh acidity is softly weighted with touches of French oak.
Va Tutto’s Four Raw Tastes of the Ocean, another wonderful entrée, is a dressed sushi plate of sustainably caught Australian fish featuring yellow fin tuna, hiramasa kingfish, ocean trout and Hervey Bay scallops. Light accompaniments of caper mayonnaise for the tuna, tomato salsa for the king fish and lemon oil served with the ocean trout add detailed flavour nuances that work well. The concept of this dish reminds me of dining at both Neil Perry’s Rockpool and at Queensland’s multi-award-winning Wasabi restaurant, also known for their sustainable Australian line-caught sashimi.
While both seafood teasers are an excellent way to begin a meal at Va Tutto. Authentically Italian, and featuring softly melted light and creamy mozzarella, I can think of no better way to enjoy the sweet, grassy and wonderfully textured complexity that is fig.
If you think Va Tutto might have difficulty plating up the best in Italian staples, then think again, as one test of any good Italian family establishment is the freshness of the pasta. Ivanhoe’s fresh-daily free range eggs come courtesy of Paul’s father who collects the eggs from his urban henhouse. The chickens are fed premium kitchen scraps and see a lot of natural sunlight. This results in bright, almost fluorescent yellow yolks that add a warm colour to the house-made tagliatelle. The pasta is silky textured and perfect with Paul’s sweet tasting veal and chicken meatballs drenched in tomato passata. I adore the side salad of radicchio, fennel and orange topped with caciocavallo cheese. This is like a bitey, more tart mozzarella cheese: ‘it’s used almost as a seasoning,’ explains Paul. Grated over the salad it adds a wonderful nutty and rich intensity plus a softly textured mouth feel. It’s yet another small touch that makes dining at Va Tutto so rewardingly unique.
My meal is completed with a vanilla panna cotta with mandarin curd, encased within a white chocolate sphere. There’s an element of Sydney three hat glam about this that some might feel is little over the top. But it brings a smile to my face and proves a silky textured delight with the sweetness offset by the clean citrus bite of the custard-like mandarin curd.
For a family-run, suburban eatery Va Tutto is a rather substantial operation. Paul’s semi-open kitchen features a central range on a par with Dinner by Heston Melbourne – it’s huge, trust me! On busy nights up to 11 staff cater to 130 people, perhaps more, with the tables turning. The wait staff seemingly effortlessly work the room; they seem coordinated like clockwork. On top of the day and night trade, Paul also produces calorie-controlled take home meals to help clients who need to lose weight to improve their health.
While I didn’t ask if Paul had a degree in food science, he did mention a degree in organic and inorganic chemistry and how his scientific background does help with understanding the technology behind – you would never guess – the Va Tutto car detailing business, an incredibly successful ‘high spec’ operation that he runs with his son Michele on weekends (Paul is up at 6am to put in 3-4 hours before lunch service). Michele and Paul are a privileged pair, being some of the only people in Australia that have been accepted and trained in applying Feynlab Self Healing Ceramic Nano particle surface protections for luxury vehicles.
And in terms of the cars that come their way, 2 million dollar Ferraris and other highly desirable collectables are common. With a ten stage application, Feynlab provides extreme durability and gloss to body work, as well as making the surface super hydrophobic (water just won’t stick), chemical and UV resistant. The product is also amazingly self healing, repairing minor scratches and swirl mark damage right before you eyes – it’s the world’s coolest car detailing application, made possible on a microscopic level by ceramic polymer chains infused with nano particles doing all the work.
Deadliest catch Glacier 51, cool climate wines, papa’s fresh egg pasta, Feynlab and Ferraris – what’s not to love. It’s a family thing, and I’m so pleased to have been introduced!
226 Upper Heidelberg Road,