35 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||9650 0988|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Chef||Joseph Vargetto and Mauro Callegari|
|Payments||AMEX, eftpos, Mastercard, Visa, Diner's Club|
YOU don't need to employ Max Markson as your agent to know that branding is important — getting who you are and what you're on about seared into the public consciousness — and to know that messing with preconceived ideas can be very dangerous indeed.
So it was a brave move by Luke Stringer and Joseph Vargetto, following the departure of their business partner, to reinvent their four-year-old restaurant. It was even braver that they did it in two weeks over Christmas when all self-respecting tradies are on holiday.
Some of their meticulous planning was, however, undermined when they unrolled the new lino to find it was grey instead of red. That slate colour underfoot (for what it's worth, I think it works better anyway) is a lesson about rolling with the punches. It's also a bit of a metaphor for the evolution of Mezzo itself, which, until January, was Oyster Little Bourke, a restaurant with Euro-classical fine-dining pretensions, good oysters and a great wine list.
Like plenty of chefs, Vargetto received old-school French training but had a hankering to cook the food he'd grown up with — in his case, Sicilian. It's a less formal way of eating for anyone familiar with the old Oyster, kicking off with a list of stuzzichini — snacky things carrying happy associations of sunny skies when the northernmost part of Little Bourke Street is slaked with rain.
It's the sort of stuff that is easy to warm to, whatever the weather. I defy anyone not to be gladdened at the sight of soft, rich, house-cured bresaola scattered with capers ($19); slices of dense Italian sausage getting neighbourly with crunchy two-bite fiore di burrata ($12); or season's-end zucchini flowers, fried with a lemony, minty ricotta filling ($9).
Stringer, the Anglo half of the duo, has played keep-up. His strong wine list speaks fluent Italian and a good choice of carafe and by-the-glass options add to its versatility. His service smarts were always one of Oyster's strong points and the transition to an Italian slant, other than the occasional self-correction when he says cassoulet instead of cassaroula, has been seamless.
The room itself has undergone a mini-makeover, including new lampshades in a very Sicilian blood-orange red, a village scene digitally wallpapered on to one wall and a few antique kitchen implements used as decorative shorthand for the change of direction.
From a selfishly personal standpoint, I'm glad they made the change. Sicilian speaks to the gut in a way the more fussy stuff doesn't. It rewards greediness, eating with the fingers, sharing. The pasta selection alone would keep me coming back. A bowl of cavatelli ($19/$32) has special dispensation from the al dente rule (the little grooved rolls of pasta are made with semolina) so the texture baton is taken up by tiny, firm cubes of potato. To this otherwise anodyne dish is added herb-fragrant meatballs and a bold pecorino sauce, for a base of salty tang. There are good spinach and ricotta gnocchi, too, their lightness defying the butter sauce. Asparagus and peas make it a fresh and simple dish ($18/$31).
There's a lot going on with mains, in contrast with the accepted wisdom that the basis for all Italian food is a few ingredients, treated simply. There's a big, jumbled plate of swordfish fillets ($37), pan-fried golden, with capers, deeply caramelised fennel, prawns, artichokes and cherry tomatoes swimming in a soupy, saffrony broth with prawn oil. The rocket scattered over at the end might tip it into one-too-many-ingredients territory but it's in balance. It's a big and satisfying dish.
The confit pork belly ($36) is more restrained. It has all of the full-fat flavour you want of the cut and the sauce of sticky sweet juices with a sweet-sharp touch of liquorice. It's good, honest stuff. So is the cassaroula ($37) — pork rib, rabbit sausage and half a quail, the little trio augmented by a pot of stewed white beans and salmoriglio, the southern Italian salsa verde-esque sauce for grilled meats.
Maybe it says something that it was the most cheffy dish — a seafood tasting plate ($26) — that I liked least. It had some loveable components, in particular slices of octopus terrine, but a swordfish tartare was simply overwhelmed by its little rolled lattice of parmesan. Another of the more overtly classical dishes — rabbit terrine with a marsala glaze and apricot chutney ($18.50) — has a little dish of slivered roasted almonds, fennel seeds, pistachios and other bits and pieces to use at random. It's a rather brilliant way to balance the sweetness that also says a thing or two about the Sicilian way.
It puts into relief what I like about Mezzo. You can find a lot of pretense in the CBD; soul, not so much. But there's most pause for thought when desserts also spill 50-50 down old/new lines. The chocolate budino ($16) — chocolate fondant goes Sicilian — is the very model of the modern dessert, with orange cream and various treatments of chocolate (jelly, truffle and dust) with little shoots scattered about.
On the other side of the spectrum, doughy Sicilian doughnuts ($9) drizzled in honey come with a gelato cassata that could have been made with a Sicilian nonna's tears, along with candied peel, coriander seeds, pistachios and currants.
I preferred the latter. Just as I prefer Mezzo to ... well, let's forget what came before. There's a worthy new restaurant on the block. Relax, Mr Markson, your services won't be needed.
Score: 19: Unacceptable. 1011: Just OK, some shortcomings. 12: Fair. 13:Getting there. 14: Recommended. 15: Good. 16: Really good 17: Truly excellent. 18: Outstanding. 1920: Approaching perfection.