Ronnie’s, a classy yet casual joint in the heart of the CBD with charm seeping in from all angles, has recently had something of a facelift. Not of the interior, but instead, their food menu has been entirely overturned due to the welcome addition of their new head chef, Anthony Dispensa. Revolving primarily (but not exclusively) around Cicchetti, also known as Italian tapas, Ronnie’s is a breath of fresh air in the Melbourne dining scene, in that it incorporates traditional Italian dishes with the spice of modern American flavours and techniques.
Chef Dispensa has been lured away from the glitz and glamour of New York’s celebrity-studded institution of Carbone, to create entirely new menu listings for our perusal and delight. Heavily informed by his upbringing on the east coast of the US, Italian American cuisine is at the forefront of Ronnie’s offerings. “My family was originally from Palermo, which is in Sicily, and they moved over many generations ago. I was always at my grandmother's house growing up, she did her own little take on things, as did all the Italians that came over,” says Dispensa.
The charm of Ronnie’s lies in its unabashed enthusiasm for the food they serve up, the drinks list they’ve curated and the genial atmosphere they give off. Starting with the Cicchetti, the standout on offer is the compressed cucumber served with Stracciatella, fresh dill and mint and a drizzle of balsamic. Also notable is the creamy polenta topped with a mushroom ragu, which also happens to be a childhood favourite of the chef. The fermented potato focaccia with mozzarella is also a winner, with the soft and fluffy bread pairing excellently with the creamy tang of the cheese.
Their pasta dishes are flavourful and cooked al dente, and the selection includes their famous Pasta Fusilli with spicy Alla Vodka, served with a dollop of whipped Ricotta and toasted breadcrumbs, which is melt-in-your-mouth decadent. Their gnocchi with grandma’s Bolognese (a Dispensa family recipe), is served with plenty of cheese atop the little pillows, and the risotto Milanese is a citrusy dish, garnished with scallops and kale. Expect the menu to remain dynamic though, according to Dispensa, “As the seasons inspire us, we’ll keep adding to it.”
The drinks are sure to turn heads too, with an abundant selection of wines, beers, and spirits, but the cocktails, selected by the venue manager Eddy Tamayo, are where the venue shines. The Charlie Chaplin, a gin and apricot liqueur concoction, is sweet and sharp with a delightful tang, and their espresso martini is well-balanced and heady.
The venue is set in the iconic Rialto building in downtown Melbourne, right in the piazza. There’s an outdoor terrace that is perfect for after-work drinks or even lunch, and the open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant lets you see all the action take place. The place is designed to be comfortable and casual, with private booths available as well as a function room that’s discreetly hidden away. The warm interior and the moody lighting set a perfect mood for a gastronomic night out, so don’t be shy about how many dishes you order.
Image credit: Pete Dillon