1D Michael St Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Opening hours||Dinner Wed-Sat|
|Features||Licensed, Outdoor seating|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9388 8718|
On a recent rainy Wednesday evening, the dining room at Sig. Enzo in Brunswick is almost devoid of visitors. The turntables in the front window are in use, blasting Afro-Latin jazz, the tables are set, and Lorena Corso, the Sicilian-born chef who gained recognition at Fitzroy's Napier Quarter and took over here in March, is in the kitchen ready to turn out Italian-inspired snacks meant to go with the list of bitter-edged cocktails. But aside from me and my dinner guest, the room is empty.
Perhaps it's the fact that the small room is just a few metres too far from Sydney Road. Or that the lighting isn't quite warm enough to tempt people in from a dark, wet evening. I imagine, in summer, the sunlight streaming in through the windows might make the place – plus its footpath tables – far more enticing.
It's too bad, because there's plenty to love about this little bar and restaurant, which originally opened in 2018. The brown leather booths and cafe chairs have a charming (and very Italian) sensibility. Some of the walls are plastered with vintage local newspaper pages (I was tempted to get up to read a "Voice of Youth" opinion column titled: "Don't knock your dad, he's got a lot of clues").
Sig. Enzo bills itself as an aperitivo bar, and the cocktail list is almost entirely made up of classic drinks made with a base spirit and some kind of amaro. These drinks are very well-made – I especially loved the Paper Plane ($22), made with rye, amaro and Aperol.
Most of Corso's menu is geared towards pairing food with these types of drinks. Little plates of sardines, olives and prosciutto are available, plus slightly more substantial dishes.
Corso's flavours are clean and bright: house-cured salmon ($20) with slivers of apple and sprigs of dill atop a swirl of parsley oil; spiced, chilled mussels with Armenian cucumbers and sweet biquinho peppers.
A plate of chickpea fritters ($14), accompanied by a quenelle of whipped lemon ricotta, borders on being almost too simple for its price, but the fritters make perfect pre-dinner nibbles, especially when accompanied by a bracing cocktail.
The fare becomes heartier as you move down the menu, most alluringly in the form of a Sicilian sausage which is sliced and served with the vinegar tang of pickled onions and stalks of charred rapini. If you love your greens blackened and bitter (as I do), this dish will win your heart.
There's only one thing on the current menu I'd categorise as a main course – a bowl of house-made spaghetti with braised pine mushrooms and goat's curd ($28) – but it's a lovely, warming dish, the mushrooms and curd forming a creamy sauce for the al dente pasta once you've mixed everything together.
Despite all this, I can see why Sig. Enzo might be struggling a little. There are things about the place that seem incongruous, things that, on their own perhaps, are barely noteworthy but add up to an experience that can feel a little off.
Why, for instance, is the place decorated with stacks of books about Italian wines when there are no Italian wines on the list (and the Australian wines that do make up the list aren't particularly Italian in style)? Why do you have to pay for drinks and food separately, the drinks ordered and paid for via QR code, the food ordered and paid for via the waitstaff? And some of the food is pricey – six shelled mussels on a bread plate for $15 seems just a tad steep.
I found myself trying to figure out the goal and soul of the place; the venue isn't easily understandable, and therefore not as enjoyable as it might be.
If Sig. Enzo were in my neighbourhood, I'd be stopping by for a Paper Plane and a plate of sausage fairly often. But it strikes me as a spot that has never quite found its groove or, if it did, it was interrupted by COVID-19 and has had trouble returning to it in recent months.
This new chef ought to help. Some warmer lighting might do the same. A more convivial and less confusing experience would definitely help. In the meantime, I'll be back for the cocktails, the snacks and the undying belief that things will get better with time.
Vibe: Chic Italian cafe
Go-to dish: House-cured salmon
Drinks: Classic Italian cocktails and a short Australian wine list
Cost: About $50 per person for heavy snacking
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine