"I'm opening a bottle of something strange," Giorgio says. "Who wants a glass?" The way he's lit from behind the bar, the light shining on his face through bottles of Braulio, Averna and grappa de nebbiolo, makes it seem almost as though he's at a pulpit. This evening's sermon happens to be more or less secular in nature, but it's given with devout faith and palpable charisma. The wine that's being proffered undergoes no transubstantiation as it's passed from host to guest; it's still just wine. But what a wine.
It stands as testament to 121BC Cantina & Enoteca's charms that hot on the heels of the rapid-fire opening of three very good, and groundbreaking, new Sydney wine bars - The Wine Library, 10 William Street, and Love, Tilly Devine - it still warrants more than a footnote. The set-up here is different, though. Like the City Wine Shop in Melbourne, like many of the caves du vins in Paris and like the great enoteche of Rome after which it's modelled, 121BC is as much bottle shop as it is wine bar, and as much wine bar as it is somewhere to have a bite. You can take a wine by the glass at the counter, but if you want something by the bottle, you stroll into the adjoining shop on the other side of the safety-glass divide, pick out something you like, slap $15 in-house corkage on the retail price and drink it in the bar. (Or take it home and make your own damn bruschetta and save the $15. The retail prices are fair enough that you'll leave happy regardless.) It's even easier than it sounds, and about twice as fun. You're as likely to find yourself sitting down for a glass after you shop as you are to walk out of the bar clutching a half case of seriously interesting wine to take home.
Here's a fact: 121BC lists a wine by the glass from all 20 of Italy's regions. Given that most Italian restaurants in Australia would be hard-pressed to name a wine from, say, Molise - let alone offer it by the pour - this is no small feat. What's more, they're all wines you'll want to drink. If the glass prices seem oddly low - several are under $8, and, for a glass of wine that hasn't come out of a box or a bucket, that definitely qualifies as oddly low in Sydney terms - it's because they're 100ml pours rather than the restaurant-standard 120ml. This puts the focus on trying different things and talking, and on quality over volume, which is what a good wine bar is really all about.
The short blackboard menu has far fewer entries than the wine list, but the kitchen makes them all count: fried sardine fillets punched up with surprisingly hot peppers and cool celery leaf, or a carpaccio of Spanish mackerel. The food can be as flash as bruschetta topped with the riches of Taleggio and a gooey-yolked deep-fried egg or as rustic as charred Roman beans dressed with a fine grating of good parmesan cheese. Chicken liver pâté, more parfait-like in its buttery smoothness, is probably not strictly Italian, but when it's paired with shreds of pickled beetroot and toast nobody's arguing the point.
Sliced figs laid across a wooden board with slivers of fennel and the pale, cottage cheese-like innards of buffalo mozzarella aren't going to redefine your understanding of Italian cuisine, but like all the food at 121BC, it's a dish made with care, understanding and honest intent. It's good eating. You'll probably smell the grilled mortadella before you see it, meanwhile, and it hits the table hot and charry from the griddle, sweet Spanish onions its foil. I'd say the mortadella or the bowl of mussels, lolling fat and juicy in their shells in a broth tuned up with parsley and caperberries, were hands down the best things to eat here, except that I've also been wowed at other times by nothing more than a little saucer of walnuts, hot from the pan and creamy, or the roast olives, scattered with dried grapes.
No desserts have appeared since I've been making the rounds, but the choice of cheese on offer - as with the salumi and the bread - is of the high standard you'd hope to find at any wine bar of substance. If you want something sweet, goes the inference, why not a glass of Recioto della Valpolicella or a sparkling Brachetto d'Acqui? The coffee, meanwhile, is cold-drip, a method of brewing that produces a cold drink some enthusiasts liken to a tea made with coffee beans. It's subtler than espresso or stove-top coffee, and its wine-like qualities certainly aren't out of place here.
Owner Andrew Cibej is nothing if not quixotic. Vini, the restaurant he opened across the laneway on Holt Street, was, in 2005, so small you could stand in the kitchen, comb your hair in the bathroom, eat a plate of pasta and have a Bicicletta at the bar all at once. He managed to position Berta, the restaurant he opened last year, in a corner of the city that is at once utterly central and almost completely impossible to find. But he's doing something right. Vini has flourished, trebling in size and taking over space beside and behind its original 20 seats, and Berta is beating customers off with a stick. At 121BC, Cibej combines a near-invisible laneway location with a very small room half given over to a bottle shop. The only seating is on stools at the bar, the menu runs to maybe nine small dishes and no desserts. The toilets are part of the apartment building the restaurant resides in. Bookings aren't taken, and to say the name is wilfully obscure is to undersell the majesty of naming your establishment for the most celebrated vintage of antiquity.
The Oxford Companion to Wine tells us the Opimian wine of 121BC, so named for the consular year of Lucius Opimius, "owes its fame to the conjunction of an exceptionally hot summer and a momentous historical event, the assassination of C. Gracchus, which temporarily ended the movement for social reform". The wine appears in the writings of Cicero and Pliny the Elder and by the time Martial and Petronius came to mention it, it had become a literary commonplace: drinking Opimian wine is one of the things nouveaux riches do to flaunt their wealth, "but this is satire, not fact".
To have lasted so well, concludes the entry, "the wines were almost certainly dried grape wines". You can drink their direct descendants at 121BC in the form of Amarone, the huge, boozy, raisiny and rich wine made from semi-dried corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes in the Veneto. Or you can drink fizzing wines from Alto Adige or cult-inspiring wines made by the oeno-shamans of the Collio in the north. There's inky organic lambrusco, floral Franciacorta from Lombardy and almost certainly examples of everything in between. It might all be a bit much. A bit much, that is, if it weren't for Giorgio.
Giorgio De Maria runs the wine side of the show. The shop's shelves are organised by region, and there are two maps of Italy on show - one with details of wines from the north, another concerned with the south. The accent of his native Piedmont might still be fresh and strong on his tongue, but De Maria is far from orthodox in his selection - quite the opposite. Save for a couple of bottles from Gaja and Antinori, and the SC Pannell bottle that forms part of De Maria's curiosities-of-nebbiolo collection, most of the wines here are made with grapes native to Italy by smaller, family-run vineyards, many of them using techniques associated with the natural winemaking movement. De Maria lives, breathes and, most certainly, drinks wine. He knows the stories of the winemakers and is intimately familiar with every wine on the shelves. His passion for the subject is such that at times he risks spontaneous combustion, and I defy you to resist getting caught up in it.
Stuff served on boards? Small plates? Groovy laneway location? Natural wines? If that all sounds too of the moment, take heart - this stuff is being channelled direct from the old country. You could pick the whole operation up and drop it in Pigneto and the Romans wouldn't blink at it. With Cibej back rocking the kitchen and De Maria doing his thing at the bar, 121BC presents a very attractive package, and that's before you look at the value. "I know it's not really fashionable in Sydney," Cibej says, "but I thought it might be interesting to do something that's not really expensive." Can I hear an "amen"?