Oakleigh is dominated by Greek businesses. Monster cake stores Vanilla and Nikos have people travelling from far and wide for their sweet creations, while Greek butchers, bakers and delis surround them.
To offer something different in the suburb is bold.
Enter Italian food store and restaurant Just Italy; it's tucked away from the bustle of Oakleigh’s epicentre, Eaton Mall.
If you visit Just Italy on a Friday night, you’ll step into something totally foreign – even for Melbourne’s developed food scene. From 6pm until 10.30pm, the by-day cafe and food store transforms into an aperitvo house where customers head in, buy a drink – an Aperol spritz, negroni, or Chianti, perhaps – and enjoy complimentary food. Yes, you read that correctly: snacks and if you're lucky pasta, are on the house.
“Most people don’t believe us when we first tell them the food is free if they buy a drink,” says owner Tonino Amadio. He hails from Le Marche, a region in the centre of Italy that hugs the Adriatic Sea.
“But what we’re doing here is extremely common in Italy. When you go to a bar for aperitivo, you also enjoy free food.”
Friday nights at Just Italy are like an intimate party for around 40 people, who squeeze into a petite space where everyone is forced to mingle. Friendships have formed over house-made meatballs, arancini, bruschetta and olive ascolane, a classic appetiser from Le Marche: they're green olives filled with meat, egg and parmesan cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried.
The atmosphere is enough to shock most new customers who walk through the door, but the welcoming staff soon relax them. Some loyalists love the venue so much that they turn into waiters for the night, ferrying around complimentary food to newbies. If it's your first time and you’re feeling overwhelmed, head straight to Amadio - he’ll either be wearing his thick Heston Blumenthal glasses, a vest, or a scarf in the colder months.
Those who arrive in the early stages of the evening score small bowls of pasta. The type varies from week to week; it could be fettuccini carbonara, gnocchi with napoli sauce or penne amatriciana. If it’s dinner you’re after, head out back to the courtyard.
“I was initially going to start a business in Tullamarine,” Amadio says, “A factory that produced pasta and olive ascolane.” But he wasn’t 100 per cent on the idea or location.
“The man that used to own this venue before it was Just Italy also owned the warehouse space I was considering in Tullamarine. He said ‘why don’t you open in Oakleigh instead?’”
It’s safe to say locals are glad he ventured down a less commercial route. Just Italy provides an alternative to traipsing over to South Yarra or Chapel Street for a drink.
It might be quaint in size but this is a one-stop Italian food emporium. The pasta (gnocchi, cannelloni and lasagne) is made fresh out the back. You can also pick up a coffee (beans come from Sydney roaster Coffee Galleria), sit down for breakfast (only on weekends), take lunch, dinner, or join in aperitivo night if you’re feeling more social.
“You’re not going to find another store like this in Melbourne.”
Amadio may just be right.
Mon - Thur 8am - 6:30pm; Fri 8am - 10:30pm; Sat & Sun 8am - 6:30pm
53 Atherton Rd, Oakleigh, VIC