330 George St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Daily noon-late|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9114 7379|
More restaurants should offer a tick-the-box menu, I feel. It works for yum cha, it works for Lankan Filling Station in Darlinghurst, and it certainly works for Bar Totti's, one of a string of new openings by Merivale.
Ticking-the-box is a charmingly Luddite, do-it-yourself, personal way of ordering, at a time when new hospitality-tech apps such as me&u allow diners to order and pay for the food without any human interaction. Bugger that, I want human interaction, thanks.
And there's plenty of it in this white-washed, glass-windowed neo-tratt bang on George Street, lined with chunky wooden tables, bistro chairs, open grills and an igloo of a wood-fired oven.
The mood is set on party; the small, dark bar out the back is loud and buzzing, and Totti's Mike Eggert and head chef Jake Ahrens (Ash Street Cellars) are slicing mortadella and grilling king prawns.
So, grab a pencil and start ticking. If you've been to Totti's on Bondi Road, then you'll tick the scorchy, salty, puffball of wood-fired bread ($11) first, because that's the mothership around which all other foods revolve.
Then start ticking small plates of antipasti, such as sardines ($8), creamy burrata ($9.50) and soft, peppery mortadella ($9.50).
It's like eating Turkish or Lebanese style, although what you're really doing, come to think of it, is deconstructing a pizza. You just tear bits off the (ouch, ouch) oven-hot bread, and layer furls of San Daniele prosciutto ($16.50) on top, allowing the heat to gently melt the pure, white, creamy fat.
You swish more bread into the sweet, salty juices of ravishingly ripe cherry tomatoes with oregano ($10.50), and then top it with fat Spanish anchovies from Olasagasti ($10.50), or with lightly pickled, lightly cooked mussels ($12.50) in briny juices. See? It's better than pizza, in fact, because it doesn't have the freshness cooked out of it.
The oven is key, because of the bread, but the really exciting skills are being employed on the hands-on, coal-fuelled grills, in Japanese robata or Turkish ocakbasi style. It's a new/old skill for a chef to cook over coal; a dance with timing and temperature and turning – or not turning.
It means it's worth shelling out for scampi ($15 each) because they're just split and grilled shell-side only, the flesh brushed with seaweed butter and lightly set as if with gelatine.
The chefs value-add certain dishes into something other than simple; like a salad of rocket, smoked pork jowl and thin ribbons of calamari ($18), or zucchini overloaded in an almost medieval fashion with rich crumbs, sultanas and mint ($11). To me, they don't have the charm of the more direct dishes.
You can stay longer and share something serious such as an 800-gram grass-fed rib-eye on the bone or whole butterflied snapper, and finish with the cutest ice-cream sandwich in town; either the nostalgia-nudging Neapolitan ($8) or a lairy-bright blood orange sorbet ($8).
But why turn a snack-happy, fun-times, drinking den into a conventional, three-course restaurant experience when you don't have to?
Instead, head out the back to the bar for a drink, or go forth onto the streets (mind the light rail if you've had a drink).
There are downsides to Bar Totti's. Getting in is nigh impossible, napkins are paper, wines by the glass are pricey, there's no pasta on the menu, and the business model is built for high turnover. Everything else, tick.
Vegetarian: Cover the table with fresh cheese, tomato salad, marinated peppers, and grilled zucchini and haloumi.
Drinks: Spritzes are big, Moretti is on tap, and wines are mainly Italian, mainly natural.
Go-to dish: It has to be the wood-fired bread, $11
Pro tip: Ask about the off-menu "carbzilla" timballo of lasagne, but only if you're super hungry.