367 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 11.30am-10pm; Sat 4pm-11pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9642 2287|
Osteria Ilaria has big boots to fill. Just consider being the new sibling to Tipo 00, the pasta bar that ensnared the city with freewheeling bowls of carb, epic wine and effortless hospitality from day one.
Tipo was a first: the hyper-specific restaurant Melbourne never knew it needed. Ilaria, not only a sequel (and operating next door in the old Du Nord site), is also muscling in on some well-worn turf. It's a contemporary CBD bistro with killer cocktails, interesting wines and Mediterranean plates. Embla, Marion and even Kirk's across the road will come to mind.
But here it is, fresh and kicking and ready to stake a claim in your mental Rolodex.
For starters, you'll want to rank it highly when it comes to extracurricular drinks. Cocktails are a short story of precise refreshment. A spritz here involves white port and dark rum electrified by tonic for nutty, dry and effervescent evening salute. Chartreuse gives jazz hands to Cocchi Americano and aged tequila in a French Intervention, good for aperitivo, or anytime.
That strong drinks focus, which extends to a collection of wild vermouths and sherries and a nerdy beer list uniting local La Sirene, the Lost Coast brown ale from California, and Boatrocker's fruity weiss beer, is notable. With Pretty Mama gone, precious few places tick the good-cocktails box in this part of town. Of course you will eat, but having drink-oriented potential beyond wine is wise in 2017, when everything is suddenly billed as a mod-European wine bar.
Heading the kitchen is one half of the formidable Tipo team, chef Andreas Papadakis, who is steering an agenda with Italo-Mediterranean roots and contemporary wings.
Where Tipo serves focaccia and a scoop of fresh ricotta, here you start with hot cobs of fennel-flecked sourdough and cultured butter.
Sit ringside to the kitchen and you'll watch baby octopus singed on a Japanese grill and plated with 'nduja (think of it as a spicy Calabrian spreadable sausage). See also single serves of lamb cutlets, in a classic romesco sauce.
You're not here for pasta. That's been made clear. Even so, you'd be making a big, prawn-oil-infused mistake passing up the paccheri – enormous tubes named for the "slap" sound they make when eaten, piled over bright tomato and grassy sorrel sauces, with the plump prawns and their rich oil both rounding the dish out and pepping it up. It's an instant signature, partly by virtue of its confident union of a few strong elements.
Many of the best dishes are the most pared back. See the mushroom croquette, a deeply earthy porcini duxelle in crunchy golden shell with razor-sharp aioli. Or tender zucchini, their flowers filled with a smooth mix of ricotta, jerusalem artichoke and a hint of honey.
A few plates make you wonder if they would be even better with less going on. There is plenty to like about seared Hiramasa kingfish, its gentle char meeting minds with a hint of smokiness from eel stock and the peppery brightness of mizuna puree. Does it need the final shower of bottarga, or is it window dressing? Ditto the pangratatto and pinenut rubble supporting rich, snappy-skinned pork liver sausage. The brilliant, sharp rhubarb reduction feels enough.
That's not to say the dishes are lacking. More an observation that the wine agenda here is so strong, you sometimes want dishes to be the support act, not the other way around.
The crunchy Val Caresa Carricante from Etna, or the Croatian Alba Antiqua Matosevic, aged in acacia barrels for a hint of sauna, deserve to star. Next time I'd switch parmesan cheesecake and sweet glazed pine mushrooms for the straighter plate of pure parmesan, 20-year-old balsamic and bread.
On the flip side, there's pink and perfect Gippsland duck as breast and crisped confit leg, with bitter radicchio and hazelnut crunch. Here you can just let co-owner Luke Skidmore and Melbourne's ever-moving sommelier Raul Moreno Yague put an easy-drinking good time in your glass, be it a German pinot (nice work, global warming) or a spicy Helen's Hill Yarra syrah.
It's not Tipo. But a lot you like is the same. The strong, intuitive team makes it unlikely your water or wine glass will empty unnoticed, while the feeling in the room is calm. The look of the long narrow space, designed by Le Sphinx, follows a similar utilitarian line: bare bricks and a private cellar room to the rear. The kitchen is open, glowing and central, ringed by backless bar seats.
If some dishes are hampered by a few too many crumbs and frills (chocolate olive oil ganache with soil feels a little dated), Papadakis's steps away from pasta represent a big leap in the right direction.
Pro Tip: Swing by for a pre- or post-dinner drink.
Go-to Dish: Paccheri with prawn oil and sorrel; mushroom croquettes.