"Italian beach club on the Yarra" sounds like the punchline to a joke or maybe an ironic band name. But it's also an accurate description of Arbory Afloat: a 69-metre 850-capacity pontoon that'll be moored beside Flinders Street Station until the weather cools.
Decked out with orange-and-white and green-and-white-striped furniture and umbrellas, planters filled with citrus trees, canopied daybeds, a central bar and a constant party soundtrack played at Italian beach club volume, it's a surprisingly successful facsimile of the sort of place you'd find on the Amalfi Coast. Sure, there's an absence of spectacular sea cliffs, and the Yarra is not quite the same sparkling turquoise as the Mediterranean, but Arbory Afloat still manages to channel the magic. Respect.
The food from chef Nick Bennett plays a major part in its success. The quality of Arbory Afloat's fish and chips, for example, is remarkable. Even allowing for the lowered expectations that come with its semi-permanent status, this version is outstanding. The fish is flathead, blue grenadier or line-caught gummy shark. The batter just flour, baking soda and beer. Fried in scrupulously clean cottonseed oil (it's changed several times a day, and the old oil is recycled), it has satisfying volume, edifying crunch and a golden colour the shade of nostalgia. Add it to your summer to-eat list immediately.
The chips are skin-on fries, bought in, but cooked to a satisfying crispness and confidently seasoned.
More good fried stuff comes in the form of the "Italian doughnuts", fluffy, crisp-skinned parmesan and potato zeppole that are teamed with a robust white pesto made from roasted walnuts, garlic and ricotta, and seasoned with a good amount of white pepper. It's a brilliant snack, teaming perfectly with the two Spritzes (classic Aperol or a Campari and blood orange number) that are on tap and can be ordered by the jug.
Booze is another area where Arbory Afloat succeeds. Sommelier-about-town Raul Moreno Yagüe is in charge of a list that dedicates a page and a half to cocktails and gin, and a snappy, budget-conscious page to wine. There are two wines on tap – Central Victoria pinot gris and a more-than-decent grenache rosé from McLaren Vale – offered alongside a solid collection of classic and bio bottles that range from Sicilian carricante to Yarra Valley pinot noir.
Almost everything, aside from vintage Dom Pérignon and the small selection of magnums (including the pale Provençal loveliness of the 2016 Domaines Ott Clos Mireille rosé), is available by the glass.
Rosé is a sensible choice when eating pizza by the water, and you should eat pizza here. Bennett added an Italian wood-fired oven to his repertoire during Arbory Afloat's appearance last year (following a smaller-scale début in 2015), and charred and blistered crusts with the right amount of chewiness indicate that it's hitting the right temperatures despite the watery location. Quality toppings in familiar combinations (tomato, fior di latte, green olives and pancetta; prawns, chilli and cime di rapa) stick with the Italian comfort-food theme.
There's familiarity across the menu, and most of it is solidly executed, like the beef carpaccio given a vitello tonnato-inspired twist with a caper-forward tuna mayonnaise. Some of the rockmelon served with San Daniele prosciutto hasn't been ripe enough to warrant having it on the menu. The same goes for the tomatoes in the Caprese salad. With some summer ripening, these dishes will be exactly what you'd wish them to be, but when you're doing a classic Italian menu based on beautiful ingredients it's best not to jump the gun.
There's some kind of enchantment at work at Arbory Afloat – even having to order at the bar and go through the number-on-a-stick routine somehow seems perfectly fine. The fact you can book a table for lunch but not at night-time when things are really busy? That seems about right, too. And so does having to stagger your ordering so all your food doesn't arrive at the same time.
The Italo-party vibe and the charm and efficiency of the young bar and food-running staff seem to be a powerful relaxant, even for the most curmudgeonly. And seriously, what's not to be relaxed and happy about when you're at an Italian beach club on the Yarra?