|opening hours||dinner daily; Lunch Fri-Sun|
|features||Licensed, Accepting Bookings, Private Dining|
|Prices||Expensive (entrees over $40)|
|payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|phone||03 5989 0160|
Flinders is a city with many beautiful attributes. Its quaint Main Street is home to one of Victoria’s finest gourmet general stores; its location on the coast is enviable. But like much of the Mornington Peninsula, there aren’t many restaurants here, especially for such an affluent community. But there is an option – and has been for a number of years – that would fit comfortably in any of Melbourne’s inner suburbs.
Donna Maria, owned by the same group that runs Patsy’s in Melbourne, Zarb & Ru in Rosebud and Bistro Elba in Sorrento, opened in 2019. Housed in a historic weatherboard shop on the town’s main street, it has a pop-art, Italianate, homey vibe with red benches, colorful clustered paintings on the walls, and plants providing greenery.
When you settle down with a tart cherry Negroni ($18) — a sweet riff that packs just enough tart cherry juice without upsetting the balance of the original gin/Campari/vermouth combo — all seems right with the world.
The Executive Chef is Daniel Lidgard whose work history includes Attica and Pt Leo Estate. His menu here walks an elegant line between native Italian flavors and the kind of ambition and rigor that his background clearly instilled. It’s just the right tone for a restaurant that functions primarily as a neighborhood trattoria — for date nights, for family dinners — but caters just as well to visitors looking for something special.
The Arancini ($18) have all the crunch and smoothness you’d expect, but with the added nutty crunch of almonds and the funk of Taleggio cheese, they turn out more than you expected in all the best ways.
Fazzoletti ($25) — which translates to “silk handkerchiefs” — lives up to its name, the thin sheets of dough draped in silken piles on the plate, along with shrimp, fried nettles, ricotta and lemon, a surprising mess of food easy and very satisfying.
At first I thought a pair of John Dory fillets ($45) were over-salted, but when scooped up with a mouthful of spaetzle — coated in shellfish butter and punctuated by a pleasantly bitter cime di rapa — the dish revealed itself to be perfectly balanced.
Chianti Braised Beef Cheek ($40) with pappardelle and gremolata had all the warming, tender comfort you could hope for. And a roast rack of lamb ($48) with bagna cauda, charred broccoli, and pine nuts was a study in meaty elegance.
The very Italian-leaning wine list — with local Mornington labels making Italian-style wines well represented — is reasonably priced and nicely organized.
Like almost all restaurants these days, Donna Maria suffers from a lack of experienced staff. (As a matter of fact, Age recently published a story about the labor shortage with one of Donna Maria’s owners, Clinton Trevisi, who talks about the impossibility of hiring at the moment.) This issue is especially acute in regional areas where qualified hospitality staff are even harder to come by, and in many restaurants — including this one one – train people who have never worked in the industry before.
From what I’ve seen, they choose the right people. While they may not be as skilled or confident as experienced servers, the warmth of the dedication is real. It may take an extra minute to get your glass of wine but when it does it is delivered by someone who makes it clear they are glad you are here.
You will be happy too. Donna Maria is a gem of a restaurant, especially in an area where limited options mean wineries and large resorts crafting the most ambitious dishes.
They’re nice, but they don’t replace a good high street restaurant, a place that’s good for the community as well as for those of us who happily stumbled across it while passing through.
Mood: Homey but stylish
Go-to dish: Fazzoletti ($25)
Beverages: Good wine list with Italian touches and simple Italian cocktails
Costs: About $120 for two people, not including drinks
This review was originally published in Good weekend magazine