In Italy, a tavola calda (literally translated to “hot table”) is a place that serves pre-made food, fast, cafeteria-style. But best get any thoughts of school cafeterias and food courts out of your mind now. Valentino’s is a new casual eatery from a couple of industry vets bringing the tavola calda concept – featuring robust home-style southern Italian food – to Grenfell Street.
It’s the latest project from Peter De Marco (who owns Chicco Palms, Pizza e Mozzarella Bar, Chicken & Pig, Borsa and Extra Chicken Salt) and his first with pastry chef Claudio Ferraro (one of the original owners of Cibo Espresso before it was sold to Retail Zoo). The pair is joined by Tatiana Madruga (who has worked front-of-house at several of De Marco’s venues and will be at Valentino’s day to day) and artist and designer James Brown (who’s partnered with De Marco before on Chicco Palms).
Valentino’s combines the fast-casual counter service of Chicken & Pig with the hearty Italian cooking of Chicco Palms, Pizza e Mozzarella Bar and Borsa, and the traditional Italian pastries of Cibo’s heyday (welcome back, ricotta cannoli and crisp, flaky sfogliatelle).
“I wanted to do an antipasto bar and bakery, and just a few little desserts – cornettos, cannoli – whatever my skill set allowed, initially,” De Marco tells Broadsheet. “Then Claude got involved and it went from this, to…”
“Well you might as well give them everything,” Ferraro interjects, with a grin. “Well, it’s not everything,” he corrects himself. “We’re only doing around eight to 10 products of pastry, and rotating daily specials. But I’ve picked probably the eight to 10 most popular items that I think, from an Italian standpoint, reflects someone’s past. Something clicks with someone when they eat cannolo or bomboloni.”
The nostalgia factor is present – at least for this writer – in the rest of the menu too, with trays of home-style, rustic, largely southern Italian food, prepared and cooked in-house each morning then laid out in glass cabinets for you to eye over, order, and bring back to your table.
“Pete was explaining to me [his concept for] an antipasto bar … and I said, ‘yeah that’s tavola calda, that’s exactly what it is in Italy’,” says Ferraro.
“It’s restaurant-quality food in a relaxed, casual environment,” says De Marco. And a hearty, nourishing, and tasty lunch option for time-poor city office workers.
The spacious indoor-outdoor spot sits on the ground floor of a heritage red-brick office building, whose entrance, foyer and atrium recently had a $14 million refit by Ashley Halliday Architects. Brown’s design studio 2049 is behind the Valentino’s interior, graphics and art curation, which is inspired by Milanese design and brutalist architecture, complete with arches, terrazzo tables, and concrete sculptures by Brown and Sabrina Sterk (with the help of Tim Hansford of Love Concrete). Two counters – an espresso bar and an antipasto bar – are separated by the piazza-like atrium, which has a retractable roof.
The antipasto bar and open kitchen at the rear of the courtyard is the setting for an alluring visual menu of roasted eggplant stuffed with pork and veal; stuffed capsicum with rice and chicken; peperonata (a glistening medley of fried eggplant, potato and capsicum); ricotta and spinach gnudi, or “naked ravioli”; eggplant parmigiana; and slow-cooked, cheesy pork and veal meatballs.
“[The concept is] inspired by places in Bologna and Rome, but a lot of the food comes from the south,” says De Marco, whose family comes from Calabria.
“It’s traditional peasant food,” adds Ferraro. “It’s real. There’s no fucking around.”
There’s also chicken cotoletta; charcoal-grilled lamb skewers; a daily roast served with potato salad; and fried chicken inspired by De Marco’s mum’s recipe, which was inspired by KFC. Plus, Roman-style pizza al taglio made with fluffy focaccia-like dough.
“We worked on [the pizza] for months to try to get that right, with the fluffiness and the airiness of the dough,” says Ferraro. “It’s a high hydration, it’s a long ferment. It’s done the day before, then in the mornings we get here, we fold it again, stretch it out. It sits again. Which is why you get these big beautiful pockets of air.”
“It’s not southern pizza, we wanted a different style,” says De Marco. “Everyone’s doing Neapolitan pizza. We wanted a different experience for the punter.”
In the mornings, you’ll find a selection of brioche, toasties and focaccia, and on occasion a breakfast pizza. But try to save room for the sweets – the espresso bar has a classic Italian line-up of zeppole, rum baba, ricotta krafen, cornetti, a cake of the day, and more, available all day.
In short, good luck coming back to your table without a plate absolutely brimful of food.
To drink, there’s Italian and Italian-style wines, cocktails and aperitivo, beers, digestivo, coffee, juice and mocktails.
101 Grenfell Street, Adelaide
Mon to Thu 7am–3pm