It’s a chilly Sunday evening and we’re walking through Carlton Gardens to Melbourne’s iconic Royal Exhibition Building when the aroma hits us.
The pungent smell of garlic intermingles with other undeniably Italian aromas as the noble stallholders of the 2017 Italian Food and Wine Festival enjoy the last hurrah of the weekend inside.
The World Heritage listed site is still flourishing as one of the world’s oldest exhibition pavilions, and as we walk inside I feel dazed as I gaze upwards at the arches of the Great Hall and the opulent frescoes that line the interior.
But the rich aroma that lured me in has grown stronger, and as I level my gaze away from the mesmerizing ceiling I’m greeted by a fabulous celebrazione.
Wine tastings by vineyards separated by region dominate the left of the space, and we’re given a wine glass to sample crisp pinot grigio, tangy pink alicante and rich red sangiovese.
We steel ourselves for multiple dinners as we browse stallholders boasting (through thick Italian accents) the best foccacia, freshest soft cheese, spiciest salami and decadent olive oils infused with chili, garlic, truffle and lemon.
We bite into cheesy gooey arancini balls served by a dark sulky Italian 20-something woman, obviously roped into the stall by her accompanying mamma and papa who fuss behind her with food preparation. She shoots us a pained smile before folding her arms again and scanning the crowd.
At the next stall, a man dicing mini pink gnocchi tells us he’s used beetroot to achieve the pastel hue, and we buy a plate of the pasta awash in rich basil pesto.
I’m enamoured by the truffle stall to the delight of the two stallholders, who encourage me to dip small creamy mozzarella bites into their truffle-flavoured honey. The flavour lingers in my mouth for the next hour, much to my delight.
Next we order squid ink polenta with salty sardines and a rich creamy blob of something sprinkled with raisins. I thank him in the only Italian I know – grazie – and the young Italian guy responds prego, holding the plate too long and grinning at me. My date is quietly disgruntled for a moment – until he tastes the dish.
We spot neon orange glasses rotating through the crowd, and our eyes meet knowingly. There is no discussion – we proceed to purchase two Aperol Spritz, a hugely trendy drink in Melbourne this summer. Despite its tangerine colour, the drink is more bitter than sweet, and is served with a generous hunk of fresh orange that bobs against the icecubes.
Finally we sit down in the live demonstration area, and admire the display which includes a retro Smeg fridge customised with the red, white and green stripes of the Italian flag.
The banner above reads ‘Italians do it better’, and in my oil-laden, wine-soaked stupor, I have to agree.