302 Burwood Road Hawthorn, VIC 3122
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.
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
Vegetarian Five starters, two pizzas, one pasta
Parking Street or free car park accessed from rear lane from 6pm weeknights or all weekend
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.