Sagra

Island kitchen: Diners can eyeball chefs at work.
Island kitchen: Diners can eyeball chefs at work. Photo: Anu Kumar

256-258 Glenferrie Rd Malvern, VIC 3144

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Opening hours Tue - Thu & Sun 11:00 AM – 10:30 PM, Fri - Sat 11:00 AM – 12 Midnight
Features Bar, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Private dining, Family friendly, Romance-first date
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Leandro Panza
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9079 5600

It takes courage and crazy to make great things happen. If visionaries listened to naysayers, we wouldn't have the mad art wonderland that is MONA in Hobart or an opera house shaped like a surprised cockatoo. And so even though the Sagra concept is pretty ambitious for the sleepy suburb of Malvern – we're talking a four-floor restaurant, bar, catering business, alimentari and art gallery, with a casual 120 seats to fill from breakfast through dinner six days a week – you've got to admire owner Ross Chessari's moxie for building it anyway. Only time will tell if Chessari, a venture capitalist whose parents ran a Brunswick Italian grocery store in his youth, will go down in history as a visionary or a dreamer. For now at least, Sagra is full. 

There are bodies filling every pastel blue stool surrounding Chef Island – the steamy central kitchen where pans are firing and fresh pasta is being rolled out for show. It's an interesting dining space. Almost as though you're on the set of a TV show about Italian food. It's blinding bright and vast and shiny, with runs of tables stretching away on either side of the busy kitchen and the upper floor visible between giant air ducts. Stacks of focaccia, flowers and floor-to-ceiling paste-up frescoes of mopeds and pasta shapes really hammer home that "seasonal Italian restaurant" theme.

The idea is to capture the essence of Italian life. Chessari wants the community to wander in for wine and plates of mortadella, or a steak and some of the poppy Italian ballads that lament out of the speakers. And that could happen, but first, everyone working here needs to relax. 

Go-to dish: Grilled octopus with tomatoes, potato and olives.
Go-to dish: Grilled octopus with tomatoes, potato and olives. Photo: Anu Kumar

On the food front that means less fuss, more of the freewheeling season-based feasting this restaurant is named for. This is pan-Italian with a Sicilian lean, taken for a spin through the mind and hands of executive chef Leandro Panza, late of Artusi, and it's his simplest dishes that work best. 

Octopus tentacles come out of the Josper oven (a wood-fired grill that gets name-dropped so many times it's as if it's the major sponsor) scorched on the outer and soft within, criss-crossed over a bright broth bobbing with tomatoes, waxy little potatoes and fat green Sicilian olives. A Sicilian version of saganaki is squeaky, fatty and fresh at once – a broad raft of pan-fried caciocavallo cheese topped with a citrussy spear of artichoke heart and parsley.

It's the overly embellished classics that strike out. Melanzane – eggplant parmigiana – has suffered divorce by deconstruction. It's a hard-to-eat pile of smooshy eggplant dressed with cold and sheepy-tasting parmesan cream, fried twigs of rosemary, pomegranate and bread crisps. The caprese takes tomatoes in peak and renders them oven-soft, and serves them fridge cold with olive-oil-turned-sorbet and basil as flavourless green gel balls.

A trio of cannoli.
A trio of cannoli. Photo: Anu Kumar

The need to impress is understandable. Millions, and years, have been invested. But things here are so much better when they don't try so hard.

A scotch fillet fired in the Josper grill (Josper!) is char-crisp, juicy-pink. You'd stick your fork in the al dente macaroni again too, slick with a white wine broth and studded with fresh hunks of pork fennel sausage and wilted rape greens – the chlorophyll-rich plant that could be a superfood but for its name. The scampi linguine, replete with shells, is a textural win, though aggressively seasoned.

Service is their main issue, but they know it. There's innocent inexperience, such as three people coming to offer parmesan dustings or drinks without checking if it's been done, which can come right with time. (Word is they've just pulled in Adam Petrie of St Hotel to do some whipping.) It's the indifference that's worrying: no eye contact as bread is dropped; the surly response of "soft drinks", with no elaboration, when asked for the booze-free list. 

So, there are problems. But there's also cannoli. A trio of deep-fried pastry shells is filled to order with thick chocolate, vanilla and citrus-studded creams so they stay crisp and shatter on contact.  

Sagra has potential. Take-home dinners, art exhibitions and rooftop parties overlooking Melbourne are still in the works. But is it enough in a city so well sauced? That's the multi-million dollar question. 

THE LOWDOWN
Pro tip Go for lunch or early dinner when you can get into the gallery
Status Walk, don't run
Go-to dish Octopus from the Josper grill, with tomatoes, potato and olives, $19.50

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor. 
12
 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best