Nicola Dusi and Andrea Ceriani have been friends for so long that they can't remember meeting. They grew up in a small town near Verona before travelling the world together once they got older, from Europe to South America and Australia.
Pizza is actually what got Dusi interested in food in the first place. "I used to be a very picky eater. Until the age of about 15, I'd eat only pasta with Napoli sauce, chicken breast and ham sandwiches. And even then, I had to tuck the ham in the bread because I hated the texture of ham touching my tongue," he recalls, laughing.
To make pocket money, he took a student job in a restaurant. "One day, I had forgotten to pack my lunch and I got to the restaurant starving. The owner said I could eat a pizza he made by mistake. It had red peppers and blue cheese on it…I thought I was going to die! But I ate it and loved it, and I don't know why, it broke my fear of food," he says. "I started developing this taste for food very late so I had so much to discover."
Last year, Dusi and Ceriani took over Ciao Pizza Napoli, renaming it The Hardware Club, a nod to its original use as a hardware industry social club. They were planning to scrap the whole menu and take a very modern, fusion approach to Italian food, but things took a different turn.
"It was hard from a chef ego not to change everything, but we found this awesome clientele. The family behind Ciao Napoli had been here 30 years so they had built these relationships and had people coming here three, four times a week," explains Dusi.
"They like classic Italian fare so, in the true spirit of hospitality, we had to blend what we wanted and what these people wanted. They own the place as much as we do."
During lunch, the menu is mostly composed of classic pizza and pasta for these long-time customers. Once dinnertime comes, Dusi allows himself more creativity.
"The carrozza is a dish is a dish that exemplifies what we want to do here; simple Italian fare, but that still feels like we’re in a Melbourne restaurant in 2020, not in a photocopy of an old Italian restaurant," he explains.
Mozzarella en carrozza is a snack popular in the south of Italy. A mozzarella sandwich is covered in beaten eggs and breadcrumbs and then fried. "It's like a savoury French toast, and you can add anchovies in it," says Dusi.
At The Hardware Club, his moreish carrozza, nicknamed cacio a pepe toastie, is filled with mozzarella and braised leeks, and cooked in a jaffle maker.
"We're Italians, but we live in Australia. We like to call our food 'neo-traditional'," says Dusi.
If you're lucky, you can order one of the 20 or so Tuscan-inspired chicken neck sausages available each week. Butcher Meatsmith uses the necks and heads of Milking Yard Farm's slow-grown chickens to make them.
The sausage is filled with chicken meat, liver and heart, is seasoned with chilli, garlic and Parmesan, and is bound with rice flour. The crispy head is served on the side. "We're not trying to push this on to people or to tell a story at all cost, but we can start a conversation when they ask why the head is on the plate. Chicken have heads, chicken breasts come from a chicken with a head," says Dusi.
Some dishes subtly borrow from Chinese cuisine. For the ossobuco ravioli, Dusi braises veal shins with pig trotters to form a gelatinous mixture he inserts into the candy-shaped pasta. The result is juicy ravioli, reminiscent of xiao long bao.
The fennel and chilli sausage wheel might look traditional, but it sings thanks to a Sichuan pepper chilli oil.
"What's a trattoria in Melbourne in 2020? Hopefully, what's on the menu now is the answer," says Dusi. "At the end of the day, people just want to eat something delicious. I want people to come here and think it's delicious first. If we mess that up, the story about where the chicken comes from doesn't matter."
The Hardware Club
Upstairs, 43 Hardware Lane, Melbourne
Tue – Fri 12.00 –3.00pm and 5.00–9.30 pm