257 Lygon Street
Carlton VIC 3053
+61 3 9347 2142
I don’t usually go out of my way to eat Italian food on Lygon Street. Who pay to eat pasta from the packet doused in a sauce that’s either too bland or too salty to hide the smell and taste of meat that’s about to go off? But that’s what Sam and I ended up doing last night before we headed up the road to Cinema Nova to watch Polisse (I highly recommend this fantastic movie if you’re into The Wire or cute French-Martinique guys in general – just be prepared for some WTF scenes). Our original plan was to have dinner at Middle Fish but we weren’t prepared for the possibility that it would have been closed by the time we rocked up. Fail. And so after doing a lap around Lygon Street, we ended up going what seemed like an inoffensive Anglo-Italian café a block away from the cinema.
The place I’m talking about is called University Café, which sounds just as Italian as Willie Carne, though given its proximity to Melbourne University, its name is pretty apt. The café has been around since the 1950s and was apparently the site of Melbourne’s first imported Gaggia three-handle espresso machine. Since then, it has been a popular hang-out joint for Italian migrants, idiot muzzas and university students alike.
Like many Lygon Street restaurants, however, University Café’s food quality has since gone to shite. I may or may not have eaten there while I was an undergrad at Melbourne Uni as the restaurants on this strip are pretty homogenous. However, I DO know that the food we had last night was pretty bad. That said, I couldn’t really find fault in the service. The girl who served us was not only appropriately friendly and polite, she also managed to get us out of there within the half hour so that we could make the movie in time (we could have had a longer dinner if we had not walked past the Gewurzhaus spice store beforehand *cue Libby going slightly crazy over rubs, spices and teas*).
We were given a basket of cold bread and probably more than enough Western Star butter pats. It wouldn’t have been at all fair to bitch about the bread here (which, to be fair, wasn’t horrible), so we just appreciated the fact that we actually got some.
Sam ordered a main-sized spaghetti alla universita ($20.50). The generously-sized dish came in the form of cooked packet spaghetti drizzled with way too much olive oil and not enough garlic and chilli. There was a decent amount of mushrooms on top so you’d think that they would, at least, make the dish taste earthy but all Sam got was ‘bland.’ Not even the heaping of parmesan cheese on top could make it remotely exciting.
I wasn’t sure I fared any better with my entrée-sized penne telefono ($17). The tomato-based ragu was more tomato sauce with only little flecks of nasty processed sausages scattered here and there. I found the sauce to be pretty salty, so I regretted my decision to say ‘yes’ to parmesan cheese. That said, I did like that the portion was pretty good for an entrée-sized dish so you’re unlikely to remain hungry if you don’t have a particularly massive appetite like I do.
While the service was friendly and speedy, we both thought that the pasta should suffer the same fate as some of the scumbag characters in Polisse. Generous portions aside, they were very two-dimension and boring. We’re not frequent cooks at home but hell, I’m pretty sure we can both whip up better pasta dishes at home. That said, University Café was reasonably busy for a Wednesday night and I can’t see it struggling like a Judd-less Carlton team any time soon.