Lamaro's Bodega

Sweet potato ice-cream sandwiches (eclairs).
Sweet potato ice-cream sandwiches (eclairs). Photo: Wayne Taylor

273-279 Cecil St South Melbourne, VIC 3205

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Opening hours Mon 4:00 – 11:00 PM, Tue - Sat 12:00 – 11:00 PM, Sun 12:00 – 6:00 PM
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Open fire, Outdoor seating, Private dining, Pub dining, Wheelchair access, Family friendly, Romance-first date
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Louis Naepels
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9690 3737

If you rolled into this South Melbourne pub on a sunny afternoon and you hadn't been since, say, 2010 (which is true for a lot of its patrons, and the reason for its recent rebirth as Lamaro's Bodega), you might actually fail to notice a change.  

Sure, it looks different. Techne architects have cast their neon mark in the form of a glowing pig at the entrance, and snapped the rest of the venue back to attention after a few years of the space looking a little worn.

Wood-fired meats and dishes with a lean towards Spain have finally ousted the Sichuan duck that's been a staple since chef Michael Lambie's 2007 reign. 

Lamaro's interior has snapped back to attention.
Lamaro's interior has snapped back to attention. Photo: Wayne Taylor

And yet. Walking in, it feels like you're seeing the ghost of Lamaro's past – in the best way possible. 

Everything that made this gussied-up Cecil Street pub a draw for the cashed-up crowd in its heyday – the intuitive service and regular sound of corks and screw caps being eased from their moorings; the contemporary-classic dining rooms of bare-back tables just formal enough to make spending big inviting, but knocking your glass over OK; a menu balanced on the cutting edge – all of that has been restored.

This isn't a restaurant reinvented. It's a restaurant revived. And it's better than ever. 

Acorn-fed ham with stracciatella - 'shredded' burrata.
Acorn-fed ham with stracciatella - 'shredded' burrata. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Granted, spring weather and the start of party season conspire to cast the pub in a pretty nice light, what with its leafy surrounds, outdoor tables, huge public bar and group-friendly dining rooms.

The offer of a beer or a Negroni and chilli-dusted pork scratchings within five seconds of entry is always a siren song to fans of hospitality, too. Newly installed floor boss Marvin Holder, a Vue de Monde expat, runs a floor with practised ease. 

But what should and will drag you to the backstreets of South Melbourne is that this is basically a cellar-door concept applied to pig. Plenty of places talk a big "ethically raised meats and produce" game, but the Colonial Leisure Group (overlords here) have stakes in Greenvale Farm – a land where heritage porkers roam the pastures like lords – and chef Louis Naepels has been tasked with showing off the goods.

Suckling pig with shattery skin.
Suckling pig with shattery skin. Photo: Wayne Taylor

You might question Naepels'  Spanish qualifications, since his previous head-chef gigs had him cooking high-end Italian at Grossi Florentino, and fancified cornbread at Mr Big Stuff. In truth, his light touch with quality produce makes him ideal for the brief. 

Minimal intervention is used to dramatic effect. Naepels takes Greenvale's air-dried, acorn-fed ham, which is like a sweeter, softer version of Spain's $300-a-kilo jamon iberico, and serves it with slabs of dense, toasted bread covered in a thick layer of burrata​ that's been macerated so the mozzarella curds mix with the cream filling. It's all showered with fresh chives and a little oil and paprika. If you're feeling dusty, it's the most effective booze Band-Aid going.

Veal sweetbreads are for purists – huge fat pillows, their edges butter-browned and centres creamy soft, with a little lemon, parsley and pinenut dressing to bring them into high definition.

Naepels also pulls out one of the best-balanced versions of the octopus, potato, broad bean and squid ink combos around: the tentacle rounds are tender and Josper-oven singed; the potato waxy; shaved radish and lightly dressed leaves giving the lot some pep.

As much as this is a place of meat worship, where brows glisten at the sight of plates of suckling pig, all shattery bubbled skin and soft meat, washed with dark pan juices, you'd as easily make a meal of plates of fat asparagus, stalks blackened, for running through a cool almond gazpacho.

Or a jacket potato with the tang, salt and crunch of house-cultured cream and fried saltbush leaves. And sweet potato ice-cream sandwiches that are actually tiny eclairs slicked with chocolate and condensed-milk caramel, filled with smooth ice-cream that could as easily be fior di latte but for the orange colour. 

Maybe you'll just come to sit outside drinking dewy glasses of cava in the sun to avoid the big groups getting fired up as the afternoon and nights roll on. Maybe you'll be that group. It's all on the cards. Just like the good old days.

Pro tip This has good-times Christmas party written all over it
Go-to dish  Acorn-fed ham with stracciatella ("shredded" burrata – not the soup) ($33)
Like this? Pig is also king at Bar Nacional​ in Docklands, 727 Collins Street, Docklands

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor. 
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best

http://lamarosbodega.com.au