673-681 Glenferrie Rd Hawthorn, VIC 3122
|Opening hours||Dinner daily 5pm-late; lunch Fri-Sun from noon|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Wheelchair access, Accepts bookings, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9078 5492|
Vaporetto, you've already twigged if familiar with Italian water transport, is Hawthorn's crack at Venetian dining. Take another 10 points if that makes you think cicchetti – the sinking city's take on tapas, traditionally knocked back at knock-off time with spritzes.
Here in the Lido Cinema Complex on Glenferrie Road, this new wine bar and eatery has seen east-siders hitting mandarin liqueur-spiked Aperol spritzes and mustardy emmenthal cheese panini for the past two months. That sandwich says much about the aspirations behind the bar. The crustless, gooey-centred sambo spiked with prosciutto and cayenne pepper is modelled after the one at Venice's Harry's Bar – home of the peach bellini and host to history's most distinguished booze hounds. Veterans knew it not as a bar, but a lifestyle.
It's Harry's drink-anytime energy that Europhiles Stephanie Edgerton, David Wickwar, chef Greg Feck and partner Kim Coronica of Crabapple Kitchen have tried to capture, albeit at more accessible prices. Thus: cheap-but-decent Italian wine on tap by the glass, carafe or litre. And cicchetti – warmed olives and Bateman's Bay oysters; porchetta slices dotted with clam mayonnaise like a wrong vitello tonnato – available past last credits for movie debriefs armed with arancini and arneis.
To the front you sit at a white marble bar twixt Murano chandeliers and leather stools. Weathered Venetian shutters and a century-old tobacconist's shopfront form the backdrop. A northern Italian bartender is deeply invested in whether you like the sarde in saor, sweet-and-sour sardines sometimes divisive due to their funk. Funky they are, but bright too, the cured fillets heaped onto oiled toast with soft pickled onions and a jumble of parsley, pinenuts and goji berries for tartness and crunch.
People have quickly picked up on how-to-Venice. Well-heeled silver foxes are catching the double break of their senior's cinema discount and spritz happy hour – a tenner from 5-7pm. Behind them, a couple is on late-afternoon espressos while a solo drinker – always Harry's best cared-for guests – gets an over-pour to finish a bottle of chianti.
And the Italo-party now has phase two, a split-level dining room where Feck is bolstering the snacks with pastas, gussied-up polentas and steaks. Across the board, the one-time chef of Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder and Sapore spins pretty and creative rather than dogmatically classic.
Veneto, fish heartland, with a love of wet risottos, and some lesser-used spices, means your negroni is spiked with cinnamon and star anise; oysters are sloshed with a quince and shallot vinegar and a play on risotto Buranello, made with rockling and lots of parsley, is lighter and looser than you're used to (and better with a little extra salt).
Dishes are pretty to look at. Sweet lobes of spanner crab and rounds of green chilli pop against a squid ink-stained polenta that has a husky rather than popcorn-y resonance. Burnish-edged shallot petals sprout from a beet and onion puree, some filled with goat's curd, others a salty prosciutto soup. Unusual, especially billed as salad, but the flavours work.
A little more Italian simplicity would sometimes do well. Beef tartare jumbled with pickled shimeji mushrooms, earthy mushroom puree and discs of raw trumpeter is a bit of a sweet smoosh.
But often what reads complicated eats thankfully straight. The bigoli, say, an udon-thick noodle billed with duck, dried mandarin and Asiago, like a pasta-based duck a l'orange, registers like a fairly bright ragu, the citrus barely pronounced. Bonus points for bringing the leftover sauce in a pan with oiled toasts as sponges.
The bitter leaf salad is your friend amid the festival of rich pastas and steaks. We're defeated come the dark, raisin-studded doughnuts with orange-infused custard.
But if the menu wants for lightness, the dining room could use less. The bright lights, bouncy patterns in mustards and blue, with a backdrop of an Astroturfed courtyard and overhead speakers blasting a mystery mix of Phil Collins, Demis Roussos and other karaoke go-tos kinda break the spell. (Ditto your otherwise excellent waiter's need to know if every bite is OK.)
For our money, that front bar, all softness and snacks is still Vaporetto's ace in the hole. But what a card to have up your sleeve.
Pro tip Schedule post-cinema snacking.
Go-to dish The bigoli with duck, mandarin and asiago – bright ragu with noodle bounce.
Like this? Hit Heartattack and Vine for cicchetti and vermouth, 329 Lygon Street, Carlton.