Il Bacaro

Il Bacaro's kingfish and ocean trout crudo.
Il Bacaro's kingfish and ocean trout crudo. Photo: Eddie Jim

168 Little Collins Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000

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Opening hours Mon-Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-late
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Romance-first date
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef David Dellai
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9654 6778

ROMANCE, CAME THE ORDER from on high. Find a restaurant bursting with romance. A place where hope can assume a higher form than a rose wrapped in cellophane. A place to woo, and be wooed.

So where to choose? Come Thursday, arts undergraduates will be crossing chopsticks at I Love Pho while condemning the day's heteronormativity, and the European car set will be comparing diamonds at Stokehouse. Going regional, the Healesville Hotel has more romance than you can poke a stick at, but I'm a little biased, thanks to having become engaged there - in the car park, next to a dumpster. Long story. Let's move briskly along.

The Italians. It's got to be the Italians, and Il Bacaro has it all sewn up. Last time I ate there, the couple at the next table devoured each other between courses. The waiter just shrugged and said it happens all the time. I believe him - it's that kind of place. And if you're determined to go the floral route on St Valentine's Day, I highly recommend one of their fried zucchini flowers oozing with crab and ricotta. Not bad value for $9, either, although I'd prepare for bill shock, especially if your beloved wants to go steady with a wine list that offers Old World temptations that you should expect at a restaurant named after the god Bacchus.

Il Bacaro has romance all sewn up.
Il Bacaro has romance all sewn up. Photo: Eddie Jim

Plates of lightly fried pale calamari on rocket are an indication of the client base the kitchen is careful not to alienate. Chef David Dellai flits easily between simple Italian bistro classics and setting the dial to contemporary with an Italian accent. They coexist nicely, the bonding process aided by waiters (all male - what is it about Italian restaurants and their masculine normativity?) who can be charming without getting all overbearing about it, and a dining room that channels the lively sophistication synonymous with the city's Latin power-eating hotspots.

Dellai has been there 11 years, which has clearly been time enough to nail exactly what the diners want. Things like the very modern crudo of kingfish and ocean trout, for example - laid out on slate, the jubes of fish are dressed conservatively but with elements that come at the dish from different angles - pickled cucumber, sweet red grapes, bottarga mayonnaise and whole pink peppercorns. It's the way the bottarga adds a salty dimension and the minty crunch of the whole peppercorns that lingers.

And he's never more successful than when he takes one of the benchmarks of Italian cuisine - like his pasta, semolina tagliolini with lemon worked into the springy, elastic ribbons - and does a bit of forward thinking, tossing it with parsley and lemon rind, little dried tomatoes, plenty of oil and butter, with glistening red swatches of sashimi tuna laid over the top and the salty staccato of salmon roe. There's really not much to it but - dio mio! - it's a sexy dish.

Roast capretto - roast goat - flies the flag for unfussed Italian classicism a la nonna. It's a Roman-style wet braise, all white wine and tomato with soft kipflers and crunchy green beans, truffled pecorino lifting it above the domestic. The ribs make for good nibbling, although it's slightly underseasoned.

The venison gets more art direction: salt-sprinkled loin, medium-rare, in a foie gras-intensive mustard-coloured puddle; a tartare, rich and gamey, lifted by bitter nibs of cocoa. There's a busy support cast - parsnip crisps, tiny cubes of pickled beetroot and beetroot puree - but it doesn't fall off the cliff into frippery.

The signature dessert stands out from Il Bacaro's dignified repertoire. A steamed cheesecake made with agave nectar, it has a texture like putty and provides the elegant eye of a kiddie storm of fairyfloss, popping candy, honeycomb, crystallised violet and violet ice-cream. This frantic assemblage apparently sells its socks off. Deployed against such youthful high jinks is a sour sheep's yoghurt panna cotta on the verge of collapse, berries at their summer best and crunchy meringue.

Il Bacaro remains physically unchanged from when it opened in the mid-1990s. Timber venetians, richly honeyed walls of wood veneer, a white marble-topped horseshoe bar. No need to change the template when it works so well.

Same goes for the package as a whole. Il Bacaro isn't about pushing boundaries. It's deliriously comfortable in its own skin. And isn't that what attraction is all about?


The best bit Italian charm
The worst bit Wine prices
Go-to dish Kingfish and ocean trout crudo

Wine list A lovely, lengthy (and pricey) ode to Italy
Vegetarian One entree, one pasta
Noise An enveloping babble
Service Smooth and charming
Value Middling
Parking Street or paid
Outdoors No
Wheelchairs Yes

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.