302 Burwood Road, Hawthorn, VIC

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Orto's house-cured salmon carpaccio.
Orto's house-cured salmon carpaccio. Photo: Eddie Jim

Larissa Dubecki

RESTAURANTS ARE LIKE children: some are more difficult than others. Orto, nee Chester White, is the squeaky wheel of George Sykiotis' empire, which extends from his Press Club holdings to The Smith and Lupino. Successful, one and all, but the Midas touch has so far eluded this solo excursion.

Three times in four years I've reviewed the restaurant at the top of these Burwood Road stairs. That's got to be some kind of record. First it was Canvas, a Middle Eastern place under different owners. Then Chester White, a kind of modern British, meat-centric place that put out decent food but didn't really fly.

Plenty of restaurateurs would hang in, throwing money around in increasingly desperate measures to get bums on seats, but Sykiotis is not one of them. He's a smart operator. I reckon he knows exactly how much he's willing to spend before pulling the pin.

Wooden boxes housing produce decorate Orto's vast, white-tiled, open-plan interior.
Wooden boxes housing produce decorate Orto's vast, white-tiled, open-plan interior. Photo: Eddie Jim

So this is his second stab at a difficult spot. Part of the problem, for what it's worth, is that there's nothing about this modern glass-walled office block that screams ''restaurant''. Recent additions include wooden boxes housing produce decorating the vast, white-tiled, open plan interior, and various bits of bucolic paraphernalia - garden stakes glued to the concrete pillars, terracotta pots lining the walkway, planter boxes with herbs and citrus trees among the tables on the broad wooden deck. Hence ''Orto Kitchen and Garden''. Very on-trend. It's the rare chef these days who doesn't boast of a kitchen garden. In reality, most supply about 1 per cent of their fresh fruit and veg, but let's not ruin a good story.

Rustic Italian is also bang on-trend. Pizza, pasta, slow-cooked meats and sauces that owe their merits to time. Combine an earthy sensibility with exact cooking and you have a real crowd-pleaser on your hands.

The surprise is that it doesn't spring to life, despite chef Luigi Buono's (ex-Caffe Latte, Bond Street) native credentials. He's not committing the cardinal sin of overplaying the simple flavours, but somehow they don't embody the cuisine's full-blooded potential.

Part of the problem is under-seasoning - most dishes were in need of sodium - and the absence of great Italian food's vibrancy. Herbs, notably, seemed to have gone AWOL in several dishes that sorely needed them, including otherwise fine little veal and pork meatballs swimming in tomato sugo.

We had to ask for some bread to mop up the juices and when it arrived it was dull. Very un-Italian, on both charges.

Pick of the bunch is the house-cured salmon carpaccio scattered with citrus segments from the curing lime, orange and lemon. It has a sticky, gravlax-like finish that's hard to resist.

Gnocchi are fat pucks of semolina in the Roman style, in a pale puddle of gorgonzola-spiked cream that doesn't really commit to the stinky cheese mandate. It's overkill when the same gnocchi with its spinach sidekick turns up on the slow-cooked lamb shoulder, which is otherwise good, its tasty saucing belonging to the cooking juices/white wine school.

The Moretti electric oven turns out a decent pizza; a bianca pizza with prawn meat and pancetta is satisfying, despite needing salt.

An agrodolce (sweet and sour) caponata makes a great deal of sense with a thin, chargrilled swordfish steak, and a Moreton Bay bug risotto is cooked well, each al dente grain separate and distinct, the seafood springy and fresh, but the ''spiced tomato broth'' doesn't make an impact.

Prices sound good - mains about the $29 mark, but they're small. Bring on the sides. The garlic and rosemary potatoes - chips, really - are fantastically crunchy and utterly addictive but turn up when the food is nearly finished. Waiters are severely overstretched on a warm night when the deck is almost full but there's no one inside.

Desserts don't solve the Orto conundrum. A glass-set buffalo yoghurt panna cotta is slightly grainy in texture, the macerated berries and juice on top very sweet; the ''classic'' tiramisu dusted in chocolate is, indeed, classic.

Orto's marriage with Italy has its pleasures, but overall it presents another iteration of the old chicken-and-egg debate: is it failing to fire to its full potential because of the space, or because of the food direction? I'm glad it's Sykiotis' job to figure out and not mine.


The best bit A warm night on the deck
The worst bit Lacks the X factor all round
Go-to dish Salmon carpaccio
Licensed and BYO (wine only; corkage $10 a bottle)
Wine list Decent Aussie-Italian list with an accessible price point
Service Over-stretched
Value Fair
Vegetarian Five starters, two pizzas, one pasta
Parking Street or free car park accessed from rear lane from 6pm weeknights or all weekend

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.

12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection

Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.

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302 Burwood Road, Hawthorn, VIC

  • Cuisine - Italian
  • Prices - Typical starter $12, main $29, dessert $13
  • Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
  • Chef(s) - Luigi Buono
  • Owners - George Sykiotis
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
  • Opening Hours - Mon-Thurs, 5.30pm-late; Fri and Sun, noon-late; Sat, 4pm-late
  • Author - Larissa Dubecki
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6 comments so far

  • Like so many restaurants linked to big names, Orto is a bit of a let down. I liked it much better as Chester White (apart from the daggy name), though even then it couldn't make up its mind what it was - upmarket pub or downmarket restaurant. As Orto, they have had more than enough time to get the service right, so a big fail there. And the food is generally lacklustre too - wouldn't take much to lift it a notch - but if it hasn't happened by now, it won't without a major change in management. Hawthorn is crying out for this place to succeed, but it looks like we might have to wait for the next incarnation.

    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 1:27PM
  • I'm not sure why reviewers use "One size fits All" when they do write-ups. Also X factor? What are we eating and talking about? Living in the suburbs I look for a place I can go to with my family - the kids can have pizza served pronto, presto - no waiting, complaining, filling up on bread, and the adults can order what they fancy a la carte. A chilled Prosecco followed by a main course suits me very well. Orto is very well placed location wise with families living near the surrounding schools - so pile the kids into the 4 wheel drive and head out for a good evening! Larissa, take the family with you when you next review a suburban restaurant - by family I mean grans, uncles, aunts whoever. However, it may not be your chosen place for a Valentine's dinner with a new beau!

    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 3:20PM
  • ORTO. As a grand parent with four grown-up grandchildren, I look for a cucina/restaurant where the pizza is good and the price is affordable. ORTO staff is attentive, the place is very clean, plenty of room and they serve a very good pizza. Just to let you know. nonno of four.

    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 3:21PM
  • The bread was 'dull and un-italian?" Having travelled through Italy quite extensively, I can assure you that if the bread was dull, then it was actually VERY italian. The only way to make it more authentic is to have sliced it 3 hours before service so it could harden and become stale.

    Cyber Space
    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 6:33PM
  • If we get down to basics the provenance of the restaurant should be immaterial to the diner. Orto has great service, great atmosphere and great food. Hawthorn has very little to offer in the way of good rustic Italian fare and Orto is just what is needed. The outdoor area is a rarity in the suburbs and our family have enjoyed consistently good meals here and will continue to do so.

    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 10:32PM
  • As a restaurant reviewer you have a responsibility (i believe) to champion & encourage sustainable and ethical consumption. Swordfish is not this. Please don't support this. It's the next sharkfin!

    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 12:40AM

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