31 Fitzroy Street St Kilda, VIC 318203 9525 3999
|Opening hours||Daily, noon-11pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||AMEX, Diner's Club, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos|
ANYONE WHO HAS BROKEN bread at Cafe Di Stasio over the past 25 years will understand that owner Ronnie Di Stasio is a restaurateur from the holistic school. His approach to hospitality is a slightly mesmerising, seductive balancing act in which every element - food, wine, service and atmosphere - is given equal weight and equal billing. Dining at his St Kilda restaurant is as much experience as meal.
Little surprise, then, that his recently opened bar has quite a few layers beyond the thirst-quenching one.
It starts with the decision to open a bar now, an act that sends an entertainingly dramatic mixed message that can be read as both a lavish 25th birthday celebration and a pre-emptive shot across the bows of any suggestion of coasting or laurel-resting.
Then there's the doorway that's been punched through the party wall between bar and restaurant to allow people to move from one space to the other but whose elegantly slender dimensions also suggest that the two spaces, though linked, are quite separate entities.
For those who choose to enter Bar Di Stasio from Fitzroy Street, walking under the bright red, scaffolding-like installation by Callum Morton into a room where ravaged plaster walls are sealed behind glass, and a narrow corridor at the back of the room leads not just to bathrooms and a private dining room, but to a theatrically lit dead end, there's no mistaking that Bar Di Stasio is treading its own path.
A black terrazzo floor, high white-marble-clad bar, unadorned white walls, bartenders in immaculate white jackets and Italian movie soundtracks playing in the bathrooms add to the feeling that sculpture and performance were as much a part of the plan here as interior design.
There is certainly an austerity to the room but it's one that seems to recede as you settle in, either at the bar in a wide-seated leather upholstered stool or at one of the timber tables lining one wall. The flattering lighting certainly helps, as does the charm of the attentive bartenders and waiters and the reassuring presence of manager Mallory Wall and her almost uncanny ability to sense when a glass or a bottle is about to run dry.
There is a lovely crafted simplicity to the drinks list here. Just a few cocktails are listed - a Tom Collins, a Martini made with West Winds gin, a Brandy Alexander (all $18) - alongside a single beer and about eight wines by the glass, including a Di Stasio Rosato ($13) and a Pio Cesare Barolo ($25).
Again, tapping into the holistic side of the biz, the drinks all look gorgeous using appropriate, often quaint, glassware, striped paper straws, big ice and drink-specific coasters. Squint a bit when you're a couple of drinks in and you can start to sense more than a little Venice in the room.
The bar snacks here are already serious contenders for the best in Melbourne (an affinity with the salty and the fried stops short of making you feel you're making life-threatening decisions). It starts with the ridiculously delicious and over-the-top garlic bread (basil, parmesan, fontina, mayo, garlic and anchovies all in the mix, $9) and a brilliant fritto misto ($13) that includes perfectly fried fish, crab, prawn and calamari. There are heftier dishes, too, such as spaghettone with guanciale, tomato and pecorino ($18/$24) and roast duck that can be ordered in two-, three- or four-piece versions ($14/$20/$26).
Cafe Di Stasio is one of a handful of places in Melbourne where the labels ''institution'' and ''icon'' can be bandied about without excessive eye-rolling. Bar Di Stasio already feels like it'll end up the same way.
''For us, it was always about the classics,'' Mallory Wall says. ''We wanted to include our favourite drinkable drinks, made really well to a classic recipe without too much fussing about.''
It seems the punters are digging the walk down memory lane, with a ''surprising number'' ordering Brandy Alexanders as nightcaps.
For Wall, though, the Negroni - ''a drink that's had a resurgence in popularity around the world lately'' - sums up the Bar Di Stasio approach: ''A classic made consistently, made well, and made with love.''
Cheers Rinaldo Di Stasio opens a bar
Jeers We don't all live in St Kilda
30ml Rosso Antico
Dash of Angostura bitters
Mix all ingredients together in a frozen jug filled with ice. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass (or similar), garnish with a twist of orange.