Rigatoni with lamb at the Ercolano restaurant in Patterson Lakes. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
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SHOP 15, HARBOUR PLAZA, 21 THOMPSON ROAD, PATTERSON LAKES, (03) 9772 8996
My score: 3 ½/5
There’s a special art to crafting a restaurant that feels like it’s been trucking on for decades and Ercolano, on site for a year, has it nailed. It’s the timber beams and family photos, the hanging salami and mantelpiece knickknacks, the Italian menu which makes a virtue of tradition and – probably above all – the warm welcome which suggests that there’s always another seat at the family table.
And this is a family restaurant. The Cuciniello family hails from Ercolano, outside Naples in southern Italy, with nonna and nonno emigrating to Melbourne in the late 1950s. The menu reflects the heritage. There are homemade pork sausages, coarse and chilli-spiked, braised in white wine and served with wood-fired focaccia. If you’re not dunking every last skerrick of bread into the spicy pan juices then I’m not sure you’re fully human.
Ercolano is only a year old but feels like it’s been around for generations. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
There’s pizza, and it’s hard to go past the iconic napoletana, thin-based with a puffed, crunchy and perfectly charred crust, a slick of rich tomato sauce, splodges of mozzarella and two perfect basil leaves. It’s simple and it’s great.
Pasta is made here, and made well. Rigatoni is ridged, perfect for catching the rich lamb juices from a slow-cooked ragu. As is traditional, the pasta is the hero, the saucing is subtle, big flavours carried in small quantities.
Italy’s Ercolano is on the Gulf of Naples and seafood is a feature of its cuisine. That’s carried over in dishes like local mussels, briefly braised in garlicky butter and white wine, and a whole fish of the day. I lucked onto grilled flounder, cooked so it flakes away from the bone, served with an orange and radish salad. For dessert, highlights include tiramisu piled up in a glass, and silky smooth, creamy pistachio gelato.
The fish of the day dish at the Ercolano restaurant in Patterson Lakes. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
This is a funny part of Melbourne. Harbour Plaza is as daggy as shopping centres get, right down to the painted sign that restricts buskers to one hour’s performance a week. One can only wonder about the folk tragic or scary clown who forced management’s hand on that one. But push through to the waterfront and it’s all yachts, sparkle and million-dollar balconies. Ercolano isn’t quite on the harbour but it’s close enough for passeggiata possibilities to beckon. (If you want the full water view, try Puerto, the Spanish restaurant opposite, which has a premium location.)
Ercolano came about when Anna and Nino Cuciniello went to the nearby supermarket and came back with a restaurant. It wasn’t quite out of the blue – son Marco was a chef at Guy Grossi’s Merchant – but the rest of the family quit jobs in child protection, a medical practice and JB Hi-Fi to do what friends had always told them they should do: open a restaurant.
So they pooled their family traditions and got busy. Those sausages are Nino’s special, fondly remembered by Natalie as a Sunday morning treat, and the pasta is handmade by Anna, with deft touch. The restaurant fairly hums, booked out most nights, and ringing with happy chatter. Make a reservation to be welcomed into the family.
First published in Good Food, 27th January 2019.