At Bronte Cucina, diners in shorts sit alongside those in dress shirts - which is only appropriate given its proximity to the beach.
Relaxed as things may be on the floor, there's nothing casual about the food, which takes its cues from fine dining rather than stereotypical beachside fare.
With chef Alessandro Cola at the helm, rustic Italian food is the focus, updated using modern techniques. Cola comes to the Bronte Road location via stints at Italian restaurants Cipri and Pendolino, as well as time as a pastry chef.
Owner Sandy Bruns carved off part of her Swell restaurant to create Bronte Cucina late last year, having previously used the space as a function room. The two eateries are divided by a wall, although staff pop between both. The decor of the Italian bistro is a strange mix of classic and cliche, with a wall of black and white floral Florence Broadhurst wallpaper facing a seaside mural of olives, bread and wicker baskets. It's an unusual pairing, like two dining personalities in one space.
From our position, just inside the open doors, with a view of the sea-spray mist rolling up onto the road from the beach, we start with a glass of prosecco and an entree of kingfish carpaccio. It is light and delicate, with the intermittent punch of capers, pickled red onion and dill -plus an occasional burst of fresh orange and a hint of raspberry vinegar. The olive tapenade is missing in action, but the dish is still lovely without it.
The caprese salad is a celebration of summer's last tomatoes. They're mixed in with small basil leaves and shredded mozzarella, and served with two long lavosh crackers. We fight over the last pieces.
A main course of ocean trout is perfectly cooked. The skin is crispy and the flesh flakes away when pressed with a fork. Sitting on a bed of sauteed spinach, with a fresh, tomato-based salsa cruda and toasted almonds, it is a texturally interesting dish. But it's memorable more for the quality of the cooking than the flavours. Not so the hand-made pasta, which ticks a lot of boxes. Available in entree and main sizes, the smaller portion is a wise choice for the melt-in-the-mouth duck and porcini ragout, which is a powerhouse of rich flavours - the duck and mushroom hit first, followed by the subtle aftertaste of thyme from the pappardelle. It's easy to get to the bottom of the bowl and tempting to tackle the main course size, but would there be room for dessert? Perhaps not, and there should be.
A long wedge of mousse-like chocolate tart is served with a biting espresso gelato. It's lighter than it looks and not overly sweet. The raspberry millefoglie - layers of crisp, sweet pastry, with a yoghurt mousse, berry compote and dollop of raspberry sorbet - is a refreshing option. Both desserts are beautiful looking and live up to first impressions.
Where Bronte Cucina lets itself down a little is the service. The staff are welcoming and friendly but lacking in knowledge about the dishes they're serving (although all questions do get followed up). We're stuck on a table without much direct light - thank goodness for the iPhone torch app - and struggle to see what we're eating, but don't get offered a battery-operated ''candle'', despite mentioning our failing power source. Given the effort going into the food, it's a shame the service doesn't match, relaxed beach location or not.
Still, this is a good neighbourhood bistro that clearly meets the needs of many, judging by the packed room on a Saturday night visit. Go for the chilled atmosphere, the seaside air and freshly made pasta. And make sure you leave room for dessert.
Rustic Italian with home-made pasta and decadent desserts.
Fair. Appetisers, $2.50 to $8; entrees $16 to $20; pasta $17 to $28; mains $30 to $34; desserts $15.
Caprese salad, kingfish carpaccio, thyme pappardelle with duck ragout and porcini mushrooms, chocolate tart with espresso gelato, raspberry millefoglie.
465 Bronte Road, Bronte
Lunch, Fri to Sun, noon-3pm;
dinner, Wed to Sun, 5-10pm