6 Russell Pl Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-late; Sat 5.30pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating, Bar, Lunch specials|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9639 7822|
I wonder what a therapist would say about the reinvention of Melbourne's stately Sarti as cheeky young thing Marameo? Sure, giving venues facelifts or even completely new identities has become as stigma-free as online dating, but people still give it some diplomatic spin.
Not Sarti owners Joe Mammone, Michael Badr and Marco Tenuta. When they announced the closure, they openly admitted that moving to this new model of cutting-edge design with dishes that hit all the trend buttons was purely to attract young blood. The confession was so candid it felt uncomfortable.
It shouldn't. Humans crave familiarity and knowing what we're going to get. That's what makes being a restaurant regular appealing – everybody knows your name. But we are also suckers for the thrill of the chase, and the new.
The good news is, Marameo gives you the best of both worlds. This isn't a betrayal of what Sarti was. Regulars who came for the reliable service of Badr and his veteran team will find them here, ready with the wine list and remembering how you like your steak.
Even better, you'll find them humming with the energy of having a beautiful new space in which to ply their trade thanks to Chris Connell, the designer who has made Bar Carolina South Yarra's go-to for high-profile fizz-fuelled rubber-necking.
Where the dark doorway on Russell Place used to glow with red light district splendour, a tall arched slice of white now radiates from the wall like a cosmetically-treated smile. Beyond, the segmented dining room, with its multicoloured window panes, dark woods and accumulation of tchotchkes, have been cleared.
The room is open and bright in a palette of brushed concrete, blond woods and tiny white tiles with the bar as a commanding entrance point rather than dominating the room. It's like someone has pumped the room with oxygen but tempered it with a single curl of peachy colour in the wraparound banquette to prevent it feeling harsh.
The menu is also more accessible as promised, and while there are faddish touches, like offering cacio e pepe spaghetti as $15 lunch bait, having this done by a pro team gives the proposition real legs. For the most part, this is no dumbed-down menu.
The salumi selection has it all from mortadella to 'nduja and is available as small $5-$10 serves for build-it-yourself boards, bolstered with gnocco fritto or focaccia. More of this bread arrives, fluffy, charred and oiled, before a bracket of antipasti redefined.
Exhibit A: wagyu tartare: it comes stuffed into a savoury cannoli for a novel meeting of trends. Next it's chilled bug's tail, lightly tangy with a little yoghurt, laid onto a sweet crisp of carrot.
Most elegant is the script flip of a vitello tonnato, where instead of pink veal being dressed in tuna mayo, it's butter-plush tuna sashimi with its borders barely seared, piped with a dressing of veal pulverised together with aioli to a moussy cream, with dice of pickled celery and caper leaves keeping it clean.
The true benefit to these cutesy sleights of hand is perhaps that they allow the rest of the menu to relax. I don't want to be surprised by cacio e pepe and I'm not. It's a cheesy, butter-spiked tangle of spaghetti you could feed to bankers or pepper-tolerant toddlers both.
Having the broccoli in a dish of ridged cavatelli and pork mince appear three ways as a decorative puree that sauces, plus fresh bursts that revive and as a crunchy pangrattato of buds is as wild as you need or want pasta to be.
The straight hand continues with mains and a king of kings pork cotoletta with just a light, crisp thatch of coleslaw, maybe some garlic and sorrel-soured sugar snaps on the side. The meat is so evenly golden, so unbelievably juicy inside it shows the skills are all still in this kitchen and being funnelled well into some serious back-to-basics nerdery.
Which isn't to say this won't stay a special occasion restaurant. Did you forget about their rooftop terrace? You and everyone else. More a concealed pocket, boxed in by buildings, this is prime greenery-filled real estate for the CBD, and you can do damage to a cocktail list newly fortified with local gins and a froth of spritz flavours from tarragon to limoncello. Ditto the wine list worshipping Australia's growers of Italian varietals and the wine gods of flinty Mount Etna.
I'd also count this highly among your places to eat alone. The team has the knack for enveloping diners in a duvet of Italian hospitality – to having conversation to offer soloists beyond "how's your day?"
Herein lies the lesson of reinventions. You can change everything if the core values stay intact. Marameo isn't playing in the game-changing big leagues anymore, but the quality is there.
The service is real. The risk-taking isn't gone, just pushed to where you want the frills. On that, it's almost a relief when one dessert flops (the chestnut sponge with rosemary ice-cream and pear reads as soapy instead of floral – try the raspberry mousse in a shatterfine shell with jammy lemon verbena topping instead), proving they're still pushing bounds.
That they can be smart and casual. Old school, and new.
Vegetarian Limited to classics – one pasta, risotto and sides.
Drinks Spritz-heavy, with classic cocktail backing and Italian-leaning wines, by bottle, glass or carafe.
Pro Tip: Saddle up for summer nights on the terrace.
Go-to Dish: Pork cotoletta with fennel coleslaw, $36.