Do you still do the Vulcano pizza, I asked the girl. No, she said. But I’ll ask the chef. He’s been here about thirty years. He’ll know. She came back. What was on it, she asked, puzzled.
That meant the chef didn’t know. Hence I hadn’t been in this place for more than three decades.
It must have been the late seventies. I and my first wife used to dine here with her father and Penelope, his Canadian lover, the dimness of the restaurant’s brown-brick interior adding to an almost clandestine atmosphere. He and my mother-in-law had never divorced, but he lived with Penelope in a stark modern 1950s house that hung off sheer Coonan’s Hill like a light on a Christmas tree. My mother-in-law did not approve of her daughter seeing her father, a difficult situation solved by simply ignoring the disapproval.
My wife’s father used to order the Vulcano pizza from the menu. It was a thick-based pizza on which was built a fiery mountain of hot salami and prosciutto and fresh diagonally-cut jalapeno and other peppers, all topped with chilli-flecked pancetta just to ram the blistering message home. It was an early version of today’s affectation, the ‘artisan’ pizza, and was impossible to eat. Try some, he’d say. It made the hottest Mexican food taste like cold mashed potato in comparison. He ordered it as a kind of challenge. He liked challenges, hence Penelope. Sometimes we'd visit the cliff-top house where Penelope would make caviar on toast late at night and we would drink champagne while gazing out the panoramic window over Moonee Valley while he, an amateur thespian, told stories about the stage. Then we would drive away and my wife would officially forget she had seen him. What a dreadful thing to do to a daughter, to ban her seeing her father.
Sometime during the intervening period, the Vulcano pizza must have burned one too many customers and dropped off the menu; and I divorced and married again; and we had children; and when driving past I often said we should dine here again; and we never did, until last Sunday.
It just had a lot of hot stuff on it, I told the waitress, vaguely. I didn’t go into details. She suggested an alternative and I said that would be fine. I don't really care what I eat. I just wanted to know if the chef had remembered it.
The occasion was William’s birthday. He was born on my father’s birth date, and this year William turned eight, and the man for whom he was named would have been ninety. Median (or is it average?) law should make me forty-one. I’ll take that.
We hadn’t booked, and the fallback was to be the Japanese restaurant over the road; but while the place was almost full, we got a table that had just been vacated and hadn’t been made up yet. We waited two minutes and were seated right down the end, with my back to the warm brown bricks and a partial view down a long aisle past the pizza oven and takeaway section back to the front window and the cold street beyond. Outside, the ancient wine barrel bearing the restaurant’s name still hung over the doorway, rocking in the breeze, just like it did when I dined here with Penelope and the exes in the 1970s.
The dimness is still there, but now they put white butcher’s paper on the tables for each sitting instead of gingham cloth, and a wide-screen television broadcasts sport – quietly – over the bar. We arrived late in the third quarter of St Kilda v Richmond. The waitress brought menus, which is when the Vulcano question came up.
We ordered drinks. A minute later she placed a carafe on the table and it wasn’t even ironic: it was original. My own smoky memories mixed with the restaurant’s actual time-warp décor artefacts were doing strange things to my head. I took a mouthful of wine and watched Richmond kick another goal on the screen. I thought I had glimpsed Ian Stewart – or was it Billy Barrott? - dart out of the centre but I couldn’t see whether he was playing for St Kilda or Richmond. Half an hour later the boys were singing the ‘yellow and black’ song, and they don’t even barrack for the Tigers. The wine was the house white. It was fine. Everything was fine. The night was fine. Life was fine. The pizza was fine. And if you don’t know what a carafe is, you’re not alone. Even I had almost forgotten.
Usually we take along a picture book or two for the young one, to keep her from doing what two-year-olds do in restaurants when they have finished speed-eating. We did this time as well (The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Taxi That Hurried, complete with chain-smoking driver), but these were not brought into use thanks to the paper tablecloth, on which she drew circles around her pasta stains, like a print production manager marking the proofs.
By now the noise was deafening, the kind of clamour that steals distinct sounds and turns them into a fused blast, making even loud individuals appear to be acting in a silent movie. Waiters race-walk past with six plates on their arm, a chef drops a giant pan in the kitchen, a customer smashes a glass on the tile floor, a child screams, but you don’t notice anything. It’s a wall of sound. Tracy spoke to me across the table and I didn’t hear a word she said; but her crisp grilled whiting, potato wedges and salad spoke volumes, silently. I couldn’t even hear the julienned raw carrot snap.
Later, my short black coffee was a detonation of acrid sweetness, which is exactly what a short black is supposed to be after pizza and wine. We didn’t stay for dessert, but on the way home, I turned the car into the McDonald’s drive-through for 30-cent cones for the children. It was about half past eight. Once home, they slept like three well-fed tigers.
La Botte Pizza House
221 Melville Road, Pascoe Vale South
Summary: if you want artisan, go one suburb south-east. This is original, not retro.