There's a small Italian restaurant on Pt Chevalier Rd that was once a family favourite of ours - Cafe Latte. It was our local. Sometimes it seemed we'd be eating there once a week and we'd go into mourning when the owner would close the doors for months on end while he returned to his native Naples. But I hadn't been back for a few years since a particular family evening when our family had had a huge row there - silently, of course, seeing as we're not Italian. I've long since forgotten what the argument was about but not how excruciating our dinner was that evening and I've been reluctant to return should the memories of that terrible night haunt me. I needn't have worried. The owner of Cafe Latte cancelled his annual trip to Italy this year and stuck around to refit the restaurant instead, so when we turned up, family intact, the fresh paint, fresco-style painting on the concrete floor and newly installed pizza oven greeted us like an old friend that bore no grudges, offering the perfect salve for any ancient wounds.
The menu remains unchanged apart from the addition of a selection of pizza, all thin-based and one size only: large. We started with one of these beauties, a margherita, and the bread selection - homemade and smothered in three different toppings; pesto, garlic and olive tapenade. Deciding on a favourite can be a tough job but my 6-year-old nephew declared loudly, "This," waving a piece generously smeared in black olive paste, "is the best bread ever." I had to agree.
The food at Cafe Latte can best be described as hearty, rustic fare. Even after numerous visits over the years, and with a couple of trips to Italy to use as a comparison, I'm still never sure if it qualifies as an authentic trattoria, family-run and serving home-style cooking, or more the Italian version of a greasy spoon. One thing I am sure of - it is all prepared with a generous spirit and hard work. In sole charge of the kitchen, the owner produces all of the meals singlehandedly. I always recommend going with a relaxed attitude as sometimes the wait can be inconsistent - fast some nights, slow on others. On this particular night the wait between courses was a tad long and the youngsters at our table were restless but, in that wonderful Italian way, they weren't treated as a hindrance, more part and parcel of any family enjoying a meal together.
Once the food started arriving, it didn't stop. Tender pieces of squid, marinated in olive oil, lemon and garlic then chargrilled just long enough for the lick of the flame to imbue its irresistible flavour and render it soft to the bite. A huge plateful of fettucine with polpette - meatballs - were deliciously well-seasoned, with melting mozzarella in the centre of each. Handmade ravioli proved perfect parcels for spinach and house-made ricotta, and these were blanketed in a deliriously rich, creamy blue cheese sauce. Home-made Italian sausages are packed full of coarsely ground meat and strong herbs and delivered in a red wine sauce with sauteed mushroom, capsicum and onions and it's a dish of rustic and robust flavours. Both the scotch fillet and the veal escalope arrive smothered in creamy sauces that tasted heavy on the stock and light on the wine but this is not fine dining by anyone's standards. A seafood special of fish and shellfish tossed with spaghetti arrived in a massive bowl and would have been sufficient to feed the whole family on its own. There was a fresh, seasonal, lightness to this dish that is absent in some of the other, heavily sauced pasta and main dishes.
Desserts at Cafe Latte are a must. Chocolate lovers will adore the tartufo, a frozen dessert made of bitter chocolate gelato.
Sometimes all you need in a eatery is for it to be relaxed, offer decent and affordable fare with nothing too complicated and that's exactly what you'll find at Cafe Latte - a place where the whole family is warmly welcomed and there are no pretentions whatsoever.
From the menu: Pane della cassa $7.50, calamari alla griglia $17.50, margherita pizza $20, ravioli gorgonzola $17.50, polpette alla casalinga $17.50, scotch fillet $29.50, veal escalope with mushrooms $25.50, homemade Italian sausage $25.50, tiramisu $9.50, tartufo (chocolate gelato dessert) $9.50, profiteroles $9.50.
Drinks: Licensed and BYO wine (corkage $15)