You’ve got to hand it to George Calombaris – the guy knows how to turn food into money. He's nailed a restaurant formula (simple menu, casual space, great service) that has Melbourne queuing up to empty their pockets wherever he plants his flag and whatever the cuisine. Mama Baba is the seventh restaurant to open under the Made Establishment banner (including PM 24, Press Club and Hellenic Republic), and this time, it’s all about pasta.
Ex-Becco chef Dominic Pipicelli is in charge here, and has the unenviable task of re-creating the dishes inspired by Calombaris' Greek mama and Italian baba. The open kitchen is festooned with drying spaghetti, all destined for the carbonara. In true Calombaris style, it’s a modern rendering of the classic Italian dish. Saffron broth is poured over egg yolk and parmesan to form a creamy sauce that coats slippery pasta strands, crisp strips of sweet, thick cut pancetta, and fried calamari. An interesting twist, but the calamari does little to enhance an otherwise excellent plate of spaghetti. Overall, it’s the simplest dishes that work the best here. Like fritti misti ($11.50) lightly battered mussels, calamari tentacles and whole white bait served with a snappy tartare for dipping. Or the ‘parma’ ($7.50) which translates as two mini chicken schnitzel burgers on brioche buns, salty with jamon and spiked with fresh tomato relish.
If you’re wondering why the entrees sound like bar snacks, it’s because they are. Calombaris and co are pushing this as a drinking hole (replete with DJ) as well as restaurant. We can vouch for the drinks – the Simpleton’s Humbug of ouzo, lemon juice and sugar is a fresh slap to the taste buds, but we’re not sure that the cavernous warehouse space and pro-family policy (there’s even baby food on the menu) screams cocktail hour. Then again, it’s a loud and lively space which may be just what you’re after for post-work drinks.
If drinks lead to dinner, commandeer one of the many communal tables and order up some pastitsio ($20), a pasta bake of rigatoni with wilted dark silver beet leaves and a molten cheese sauce. The beef and bone marrow ravioli is unrelentingly rich, so you might want to try the tortellini ($26) instead. They are filled with saganaki cheese, and offset by tart roasted tomatoes and a handful of grilled prawns.
A dessert trolley does the rounds, but we say skip the lemon tart and head for the gelati. You get a chocolate lined waffle cone piled high with either Milo and milk (great idea, but it needs more Milo) and salted peanut gelati, or soda inspired sorbets. There’s Fanta for the ginger ninja in your crew.
If you don’t do gluten* or if you want a quiet romantic nook, keep walking. But if you and a crew of friends or family want a big ballsy plate of pasta, and a space where you don’t feel obliged to keep your voice down, this is it.
* Mama Baba: "We do have gluten free pasta available which can be used in the majority of our pasta dishes, along with gluten free bread and a range of gluten free snacks, mains, salads and desserts."