191 Nicholson St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri 12 Noon – 10:00 PM, Sat 6:00 – 10:00 PM|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Breakfast-brunch, BYO, Degustation, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Private dining, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9347 8252|
IT IS one of the most difficult times of the year for restaurant reviewers, partly because of the anguish that last year’s winter clothes have shrunk but mostly the frequency of waiters casually stating at the end of a meal — always the end — that the winter menu is being introduced the next day.
It is the season of the revisit.
It’s precisely what happened a few weeks ago at Arrivederci, an industry veteran bought last November by an enthusiastic young couple with plenty of experience in Italian restaurants. It was a good night and I was mentally composing my review over dessert when the waitress, who also happens to be an owner, threw into conversation the not insignificant fact that in a couple of days they would be changing the menu. And the fitout. And the name.
So this is a review of a restaurant named Scopri, which has been open for several weeks on Nicholson Street in Carlton. The rebirth seven months down the track was driven by the realisation that they’d bought not only the goodwill but the prejudices people might harbour towards 20-year-old bistros.
They also had a moment worthy of Oscar Wilde and decided that either they, or the slightly hokey murals, had to go. Rome’s Spanish Steps have now been papered over with a digital black-and-white image of a Piedmontese village and there are new bentwood bistro chairs and a fresh lick of paint that’s altogether a much fresher representation of an Italian bistro circa 2010.
Which is the note on which Scopri really hits the bull’s-eye. Crimes against Italian bistros are legion (look no further than nearby Lygon Street) but a really good one, which fires both in the kitchen and on the floor, is a rare jewel.
Fans of Kew’s Svago might be expecting Scopri to exhibit more of a sexy modern spin on the casual neighbourhood restaurant. Head chef Salvatore Caccioppoli and his sous chef Salvatore Giorgio launched that wonderful little Italian small-plates restaurant, and food trainspotters will find plenty of familiar dishes, including the zeppolo, those crunchy and utterly addictive little pastry and seaweed balls (and you can hope to God your meal is running late, in which case these babies arrive on the house).
Other transplants you might recognise are the grilled baby cuttlefish stuffed with garlicky, coarse breadcrumbs, anchovy, parsley and capers ($17); and the baccala (salt cod) done in three regional styles ($19), including the modern version of the Venetian mantecato, with a lemony potato foam and parmesan wafer that made a great impression in Kew.
But Scopri hasn’t simply translated Svago’s intellectual property to the inner north. The menu goes back to the traditional entree-main format, which in Italiano means antipasti followed by a pasta and rice section, backed up by meat and fish. It’s not so casual, either: the tables are covered in linen and the mood is calmly affable rather than boisterous.
It’s the kind of place where coats are taken and hung, the tables are de-crumbed after mains and the water glasses topped up regularly. Simple stuff, these days associated more with fine-dining than the kind of place where mains hover around the $30 mark. Which clearly puts Scopri in the great-value-for-money basket. Putting it into the almost-too-good-to-be-true basket is its BYO policy on wine — $10 a bottle.
The service shows the owners’ years of experience on the floor of restaurants including Tutto Bene, Matteo’s and The Italian, and the wine list is short but punchy — there’s a tight but well-chosen list of Italian choices augmenting some interesting local drops, although they could do well to increase the number of lesser-known varietals.
Caccioppoli’s talent is taking ideas from across the Italian peninsula and outside the standards of the canon — so there’s the element of surprise — and combining them with the cooking skills that make everything look easy. Such as grilled pieces of venison — charred on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside — skewered on rosemary stalks, each perched on a sweet dollop of red-onion jam, with some aged balsamic splashed on the side ($18).
Among his list of three or so pastas, the tagliolini made from spelt added its own golden notes to a sauce of pine mushrooms and slippery jacks for a dish of simple magnificence (autumn menu, sorry folks, but it’s worth making a diary note for next year). Its worthy winter replacement is chestnut pappardelle with a (‘‘wild’’) boar ragout. The boar is soaked overnight in red wine before being minced and cooked with pancetta and other things. There’s juniper in there, too, doing its bit to lift the earthy intensity of the dish with its almost imperceptibly resiny note. Great value at $24.
It’s pretty easy to follow that up with the braise of the day — a veal shank cooked in white wine and stock, arriving with sauteed pine mushrooms on a fluffy, golden cloud of creamy polenta. Simple yet faultless and it clocks in at a mere $30.
My sole difficulty with this kind of food is finding the room for dessert, especially when the choices trend unapologetically towards the old school. A ricotta mousse and coffee zabaglione contained by a curling wafer ($12.50) isn’t exactly the most sensible way to end a meal but the inner glutton will be well sated.
Scopri, incidentally, means something like ‘‘to discover’’ and anyone would be wise to heed the call. There visit is often a chore but the whole Arrivederci/Scopri thing was the perfect excuse. I’m trying to find another pretext to head back, although next time I’ll ditch the car and walk home. I don’t want those clothes to shrink any further.