Il Bacaro

Atmosphere plus: Inside Il Bacaro Italian restaurant.
Atmosphere plus: Inside Il Bacaro Italian restaurant. Photo: Josh Robenstone

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

To understand the restaurant as mood piece, you couldn't do better than to lose a few hours at Il Bacaro. It's not about the food – though the Italian food is good. It's not about the wine – even though the restaurant's name celebrates Bacchus, god of grapes. It's that food, wine, ambient interior and, crucially, service, meld to create an atmosphere in which every conversation is important and every joke becomes 15 per cent funnier. Life, with all its glittering sensation and swirling emotion, is bigger.

If you're doing business, you can count on discretion (I once interviewed Julia Gillard in a corner nook; we shared calamari then she had ravioli). If you're doing romance, count on good advice and a general sense that every choice is a sign of your cleverness and sophistication.

Chef David Dellai has been here for 13 of the restaurant's 20 years: consistency is a hallmark. The menu mixes classic and tricksy but it's all got heart. Shallow-fried calamari will be on the menu until Melbourne wins a premiership; the spaghettini with shellfish and chilli is similarly bolted on.

Roasted duck breast with crisp cubes of black pudding.
Roasted duck breast with crisp cubes of black pudding. Photo: Josh Robenstone

I recently revelled in another seafood pasta: taglierini with fresh sardines, cooked with garlic, fennel and white wine, then blitzed into a full-flavoured sauce. Powerfully flavoured yet impeccably balanced, it turned pasta from filler to thriller.

Meat dishes use classic flavour and technique as bedrock for fanciful darts. Pork is cured with spices and grappa, then rolled, roasted and served with torn mozzarella. Duck comes with almond puree and crisp bites of black pudding.

A slightly mad cheesecake is a signature, sweetened with agave nectar and jazzed up with pop rocks, but there are also more demure desserts like panna cotta with rhubarb. No matter what you eat, simply being here is the sweetest, richest aspect of every meal.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)