Baby is the new arrival from Chris Lucas, the man behind the ever popular Chin Chin in the CBD, and brings a new life to the site that was, until recently, Pearl. Baby aims to do for Italian food what Chin Chin did for Asian cuisine, create a fun, casual eatery which thrums with passionate energy. The formula still proves to be a winner with an element of familiarity between the two (neon, menu style, learning a new language in the toilet, eating around the open kitchen), but with enough individuality that they don’t come across as cloned twins.
Baby has its tongue firmly in cheek when it comes to its style and image, with lascivious lips, genitalia-like pink neon lights and a promo video that has spurred debate of sleazy vs sexy (see it here). If anyone takes offence then they’re missing the point. The design of the restaurant itself can only be described as modern rustic with pale wood, canvas on walls, and all manner of meat and cactus dangling around the kitchen; the bright neon adds bursts of colour. The kitchen is run by Executive Chef Domenic Pipicelli, who has previously worked at Becco and Mama Baba, aided by new Italian imports head chef Nicola Dusi and head pizza chef Daniele Colombo.
The service is friendly, informative (helping navigate the menu and Italian language) and enthusiastic, possibly a little too enthusiastic and attentive but I would take that any day over dreary and distant. The kitchen is quick, especially the pizzas, so there’s no going hungry here. The menu follows the traditional Italian style of antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci (desserts), but it’s more relaxed with ‘Salumi and Mozzarella’ and ‘Small Tastes’ leading into Pasta, Specialita (mains) with salads and side dishes, as well as a large selection of pizzas. There’s also the Banchetto set menu option, which if it’s anything like Chin Chin’s will be a generous adventure through the menu. The wine list showcases bottles from the different regions of Italy, with some local options dotted throughout, and fit with the reasonably priced menu.
We start with a selection of smaller dishes. Our ‘Accoppiati’ (selection of matched cheese and cured meat), was speck, asiago, zucchini with thyme, and grissini. A simple platter but one which shows off the quality of the produce being used. The rich speck with creamy and salty asiago cheese; the zucchini have that sweet chargrilled flavour but without becoming soggy. The ‘Arancini & Crocchette’ is a selection of three morsels: two risotto balls and one croquette. These are simple items but often hard to perfect; at Baby they were all delicious. One arancini and croquette were very cheesy (never a bad thing), with the second arancini having a bolognese filling. Our final antipasti was the ‘Peperoncino dolce e salsiccia’, which were a highlight for me. Gorgeously sweet chargilled peppers bursting with a sausage, rice and friarielli (rapini) filling, these were so good that I wish I hadn’t been sharing.
Next was the ‘Paccheri al porro’, large tubes of pasta, perfectly cooked, with mounds of sweet caramelised leek and reggiano cheese. They had me at caramelised leek with this dish, and it was a winner, though it did need a touch more salt (handily provided on the table, along with chili flakes if you want a kick). The ‘Polpette di carne’ was probably the best dish of the night for me (although the pizzas were very close), moist meatballs in a rich, but not overpowering, tomato sauce, served on a bed of soft cheesy polenta. While the meatballs were good, it was the polenta, so often done badly, that was hard to stop eating, going so far as to scrape the serving plate of every last mouthful.
It would have been wrong to not try the pizzas, so we went for the ‘Funghi’ and the “specialty” pan fried ‘Burrata’. The pizzas strike that harmonious balance of a crisp, almost-chargrilled crust with a pillowy chewiness inside. A pizza with mushrooms just begs for me to order it, and the ‘Funghi’ was one of the best I’ve tried (Ladro also delivers a fanastic version). An abundance of cheesy goodness with buffalo taleggio and fior di latte, sauteed wild mushrooms and thyme; it was nice to see a selection of real wild mushrooms not portobello (which doesn’t really class as a wild mushroom in my opinion). The ‘Burrata’ hails from Baby’s “specialty” pizzas, some pan fried and some grilled. This one was pan fried and had a crispier crust than the regular pizzas, but without being greasy like other pan pizzas. The burrata itself, a type of mozzarella which has much creamier interior, was like floating on a cloud of dairy bliss, creamy and slightly salty but with a lightness that’s perfect for spring and summer. The burrata worked perfectly with the sweet acidic cherry tomatoes, the bright herbaceous note of basil and a chef not afraid of using enough sea salt to really bring out the sweetness of the tomato.
It’s very rare that I feel too full to not even share a dessert, but on this occasion it was an insurmountable challenge. Yet I’m happy to know that there’s more virgin (fitting in with the pseudo-sexual theme) territory to explore on my next visit, along with trying to make a larger dent in the extensive menu (something it shares with Chin Chin, where you feel you’ll never try every dish).
Baby is certainly another winner like Chin Chin, bringing some energy back to Italian eateries. As well as bringing some additional vibrancy to Richmond, which has some classy places like Union Dining, but mostly just boring quick and easy options. Baby is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with the breakfast menu offering some modern Italian twists on classic dishes.