Just when you thought Melbourne's Italian restaurant dance card was full, along comes Capitano. The second venture from the team behind Bar Liberty combines a pizza, pasta, parmigiana menu with a Carlton location and a room decked out in retro-styled timber and terrazzo, and manages to make it fresh. It's an impressive feat.
What does Capitano add to the Melbourne Italian conversation? Chef-owner Casey Wall's American heritage for starters. His menu is modelled on the red-sauce Italian-American food he ate as a kid. That explains the classic American vodka tomato sauce tossed with curly, volcano-shaped vesuvio pasta. The sauce is made from fresh tomatoes, given heat with chilli, and richness with butter and puréed onion. A slug of vodka adds brightness. It's skilfully executed comfort food, the sort that might have you shovelling it into your mouth as if you haven't eaten for a week.
There's clam sauce, too. It's a New York-Italian staple, though Capitano's is more homage than replica. Goolwa pipis are steamed in white wine and then tossed through spaghetti alla chitarra with a silky sauce of garlic, chilli, pipi juice, parsley and dashi. Ciao umami! Remember to order an extra serve of focaccia for swiping the bowl – the focaccia is made with the same dough as the pizza, which is arguably the main event here.
Capitano has a strict policy of no imported rice, flour or tomatoes, and the flour in the pizza dough, from South Australia's Laucke Flour Mills, does a great job. Fermented cold for around 60 hours before being portioned out and rested for a further six, the dough is baked in a stone-floored electric oven. It emerges with a bready but light crust, liberally blistered at the edge with a subtle sourness and a floppiness that makes folding a slice in half a breeze.
The pizza list starts with classic cheese – fresh and aged mozzarella, and pecorino melted over finely puréed tomato sauce rich with puréed garlic. The starter pizza can be customised with the likes of fennel salami, pickled chilli, anchovies and mortadella, or there are five other pizze, including a spicy 'nduja number with provolone piccante or the Soppressata, a lip-smacking mix of salami, ricotta cream, fresh mozzarella, caramelised onion and pickled chilli.
Team a pizza or two with salads such as fennel, apple and salted ricotta dressed with apple cider vinegar and wholegrain mustard, or wild greens – beetroot leaves, chicory, mustard greens – tossed in a superb anchovy mayo and topped with shavings of parmesan. It's well balanced, finely tuned stuff.
There's balance to the room, too. Kind lighting, bentwood chairs, and arched mirrors on the walls and behind the timber bar make the place feel settled, like it's been around longer than it has. The noise levels aren't great, though. The room is deafening when it's full, so if you're not into lip-reading, make an off-peak booking.
Charging $65 for a parmigiana might come across as a little off-brief, but the Capitano version is nonetheless admirable. Veal, bone-in and sourced from Meatsmith, is crumbed and flash-fried before being finished in the pizza oven. The intense heat gives it a beautifully crisp crust, and it comes topped with pizza sauce, mozzarella, scamorza and basil leaves. It's pretty hefty, so it's easy to share. If you're feeling flush, there'll be no regrets ordering it.
Given the Bar Liberty connection, it comes as no surprise that the wine list leans natural and artisan. Everything is either Italian or an Italian variety made in Australia. It's a pizza-conscious collection with a lot of medium-bodied reds with fresh acidity, such as the juicy Tuscan sangiovese from Bibi Graetz, and textural savoury whites, such as the Friulano made by Moondarra.
Dessert is limited to two choices: blood orange granita with or without a slug of Campari, or tiramisù. Both are good, but order the tiramisù. Capitano's take has sponge cake soaked in coffee cream and orange curaçao from local makers Marionette, and there's Rutherglen muscat in the mascarpone cream. It's a lighter tiramisù than some, but completely satisfying and handsome enough to give pause before it's demolished.
Capitano serves a gin, tonic and chamomile amontillado cocktail, called a Fantastico, and it's a drink that's very much like Capitano itself: an enthusiastic and fresh take on a staple.