Sunday, November 09, 2008

Il Bacaro

168 Little Collins Street, Melbourne

Our friend Ida recommended this place to us, and Ida is serious about her Italian heritage and her Italian food.

Tucked away down Little Collins Street, it is easy to wander past this unprepossessing restaurant with noticing it. No outside tables (the pathway is far too narrow), no bright lights, just a serious-looking 1920s-style window frontage with discreet blinds hiding the joys within.

Inside, the place is all dark wood panelling, crisp white linen and flattering lighting. The high bar dominates the centre of the tiny space, but only a few bar stools hold some waiting diners. This is a place to sit side by side in corners, whispering, gossiping, perhaps having an affair...

It is also a place to impress. The waiters are polished professionals, almost always Italian or of Italian extraction, describing each dish on and off the menu with love and care and never needing to refer to notes. They will recommend a wine to go with your food, by the glass or bottle. They will hover discreetly waiting for your hand to reach for a half-empty water glass or bread basket, then swoop in with more. They can tell somehow if it is a special occasion or if there is simply somebody special at the table. Orlando's 15-year-old god-daughter was fussed over charmingly when we took her there.

The food is good. Classic Italian standards vie with regional specials, often involving game. Last time I visited, my dining companion chose a pasta dish with a rabbit ragu which was sensational. My starter - a carpaccio of wagyu beef - was sublime. There is usually plenty of seafood too.

For a special occasion for two, or for a Tuesday evening gossip session with a small group of friends, this is one of my first choices in Melbourne.

Sosta Cucina

Errol Street, North Melbourne

This new North Melbourne place has become a serious regular haunt for me and my workmates. A friendly North Italian joint, they take their regional cooking very seriously here.

The menu is not encyclopaedic, but it is augmented by a slew of specials every night. I have two favourite dishes which I struggle to escape from ordering time and time again. The first is spaghetti with blue swimmer crab meat, olive oil, garlic, parsley, golden breadcrumbs and freshly grated bottarga. It never looks much on the plate, but the flavours are so rich I always struggle to finish it. The waiter tells me that the breadcrumbs (salty, garlicky goodness) are a south Italian way of adding flavour to a dish when money is tight and cheese is expensive.

The second dish I love is a fairly simple pappardelle dish with slow-cooked lamb ragu and pecorino. Perfect for a chilly winter's night, it goes well with a nice big glass of chianti.

The wine list is pretty good - plenty of Italians by the glass as well as the bottle.

The owner told me the other night when we went in seeking a quiet table for two, that he couldn't accommodate us as they were having one of their new regional feasts. Every month they will have a bookings-only evening celebrating the food of a particular region of Italy with a special menu. Sounds like a good way to fill a restaurant on a Wednesday night, but I guarantee those heading down to Sosta will add this great place to their list of favourites.

Baba House

Errol Street, North Melbourne

This little Malaysian place is a bit of a Cheap Eats regular. Local to my office, I have walked and rode past it almost every day for a year and a half, and finally ate there with friends on our way to a comedy night in the Comic's Lounge next door.

The furnishings are simple but welcoming, service is friendly and quick, and the food is wonderful. Serving sizes seem big - it is not often I struggle to finish my dinner, especially such a good beef rendang. Peter's fried fish was a hit, although as a starter too small to taste more than a morsel. I will return just to have this all to myself.


66 Flinders Lane Melbourne

Ericka's birthday took us to Tazio, a quirky new pizzeria. Split-level and windowless except for the large front door, it shouldn't work but it does.

And the pizza is exceptional. Only the very best ingredients are used. They come in one size. And I could have eaten three.

My particular favourite (we chose and shared about four) was the Treviso - crushed oven-dried tomatoes, fetta cheese, caramelised onion and basil. The flavours were over-the-top strong and fused wonderfully.

Nonna's pork and veal meatballs were a small dish, but sensational. The spice semolina calamari was perfectly cooked and served with a rocket and endive salad. And even the eggplant lasagne (not my favourite vegetable) was edible (others thought more highly of this).

With plenty of wines - local and Italian - by the glass, it is sure to become one of my favourites.