Lagotto review

A snacky selection of salumi and cheese with giardiniera pickles.
A snacky selection of salumi and cheese with giardiniera pickles. Photo: Jason South

1 York St Fitzroy North, VIC 3068

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Opening hours Mon-Wed 7am-3pm; Thu-Fri 7am-10pm; Sat 8am-10pm; Sun 8am-5pm
Features Licensed, Food shop, Accepts bookings
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9005 1953

Brunch is a given. Midnight feasts are understood. But in Australia, in my thirsty opinion, we have a way to go with aperitivo. The concept is Italian but the impulse is oh-so-human: that yawning span between afternoon and evening should be marked with a little something, and then perhaps a little something more.

"Apriro" means "to open" – aperitivo, then, opens the appetite and the evening, gently handballing harried humans from busy day to glittering night. It's an art that Lagotto understands and nurtures with frisky drinks and good snacks in a welcoming space that meets diners more than halfway.

You might sip on herbaceous vermouth over ice or boost your daily vitamin C with a Mandarin Americano, the aromatic liquors gleaming with promise in a tall glass. Start snacking small with beautiful olives, or a colourful bowl of house-made giardiniera, tart and crunchy pickled vegetables. Next, step it up with quality salumi and cheese, served with dainty grissini.

Char-grilled swordfish skewers.
Char-grilled swordfish skewers. Photo: Jason South

By now you'll very possibly be perusing the tight and alluring wine list. It's strong in Italian varietals – mostly imported, some produced here – and you can also browse the in-house bottle shop for unlisted gems. Can't you feel the evening opening up like a treasure chest now?

A second drink may require more nibbly wins, perhaps the crisp-crumbed arancini scattered with shavings of tart asiago cheese. They're perfect for sharing, as is the plate of mussels and clams, simply cooked with white wine, chilli and garlic, served with a big slab of baked-here focaccia to mop up the sea-salty juices.

Charred swordfish skewers also seem designed to share, except they're so delicious you may be tempted to create a distraction and eat them all yourself. Meaty cubes of fish are doused with salmoriglio, a Sicilian green sauce threaded with oregano and lemon and not at all shy about garlic.

Siblings Katie and Michael McCormack behind the bar at Lagotto.
Siblings Katie and Michael McCormack behind the bar at Lagotto. Photo: Jason South

There are also meatballs – juicy, gently spiced and an easy win with kids – and torn mozzarella over braised eggplant caponata. There's no wheel reinvention, just good, honest Italian cooking from ex-The Grand chef David Fisher.

Lagotto opened two months ago in the base of a new apartment development. It's the third restaurant from Katie McCormack (also ex-The Grand), whose Milieu Hospitality company also has Future Future in Richmond and Congress in Collingwood. Katie's brother Michael owns boutique Milieu Property and the siblings are a double act: he does the buildings, she does the restaurants and then sticks around to operate them.

It's an unusual model but it avoids the all-too-common phenomenon of nice apartments upstairs and crappy cafe downstairs.

Mussels and clams with house-baked focaccia.
Mussels and clams with house-baked focaccia. Photo: Jason South

Before construction on this development began, Katie McCormack ran a six-month coffee and pastry pop-up from a shed on the premises. Lagotto is the result of her due diligence, an all-day proposition that works from coffee to nightcap.

Upstairs residents buy mortadella and provolone for school lunches, plus olives and wine for the dinner table. Families come in for those meatballs, gnocchi puttanesca or a pumpkin risotto. Date nighters snuggle in for cotoletta and chianti.

The restaurant design accommodates all these various modes with a mix of snug banquettes, high tables and counter seats, a foodstore nook down the back, and contrasting pink terrazzo, grey marble and red leather throughout. The aesthetic is timeless not trendy, with a flow that goes beyond the physical.

The easy drift also means there's a happy risk that a quick aperitivo will open up into a full-blown dinner. Hooray for accidents!

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)