Rita’s Cafeteria had all the credentials of a place which would rate a HOT.

Cool inner city venue. Artisan pizza. Funky Melbourne-esque décor. Owners with experience running successful food businesses. Smiling staff.

So what went wrong?

Gourmet Chick and I visited Rita’s on a weeknight and the place was full to the brim. The friendly waiter suggested that we pull up a bar stool and peruse the menu while other patrons finished their meals.

So we perched ourselves at the back of the room, feeling the heat from the roaring gas burners fan our faces and watching the back of house staff completely run off their feet.

There’s lots of entertainment for diners with an open kitchen. But it’s one thing to watch your food being made and appreciating the skill of chefs, it’s another thing to feel the sting of the hot pans in your eyes throughout your meal. The ventilation in the restaurant desperately needs to be improved – I actually had trouble breathing from the smokiness permeating the small room and it was pretty embarrassing for my hair and clothes to smell like pizza on the bus ride home.

While it’s unpleasant to have to get your clothes dry-cleaned after a meal, it could be forgiven and put down to a new venue’s settling-in process if only the food was fantastic. And it was only ok.

The dinner menu contains antipasto, pizza, pasta, risotto and salads. Given the wood-fired oven dominating the room the obvious choice is a pizza so we had the pork sausage ($17 for large). The pizza base had a curious texture unlike other Italian-style artisan pizzas I’ve encountered – crispy instead pliable and chewy, with a thick cakey rim and no distinctive char or bubbling from the wood-fire treatment. The random scattering of rock salt also meant that you’d be surprised at alternative bites with a kick of thirst-inducing salt (and we had to keep asking for water top ups from our friendly but frantically busy waitress).

While the toppings were delicious (how can you go wrong with sausage, tomatoes and cheese?) the pizza was best described as a sort of like pizza on a shortbread base.

To share we also ordered a pappardelle with cavolo nero, rocket and broad beans ($16). A great way to get your health kick but regrettably not a very appealing dish for the eyes or the palate.

The dish was under-seasoned, the rocket was woody and the broad beans had not been double-podded so we chewed through thick, bitter, greeny-grey bean skins at every forkful. While double-podding is not essential to the presentation of broad beans and it’s a painstaking task, I’d expect a professional kitchen to double-pod their broad beans except if the beans were very young and tender (and they’re a spring, not autumn, ingredient). It’s like not stringing beans – you may skip doing it at home but you don’t want to be fish out strings (or pods in this case) from your mouth to leave on your plate at a restaurant.

Dessert was a choice of ice cream, apple and berry crumble and chocolate calzone. The crumble was pretty good – not spectacular but not disappointing, unlike our main courses, and they didn’t charge us extra for swapping out the cream with pistachio ice cream. The ceramic ramekin is a very generous size so it’s definitely a dessert for two, a bargain at $9.

Rita’s is an all-day venue so their breakfast and lunch offerings may be better. But based on my dinner experience, I’ll be sticking with my other pizza favourites – Ladro, Supermaxi and Espressino.

Rita’s Cafeteria, 239 Johnston St, Abbotsford  +61 3 9419 8233

Daily 7.30am–late

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