It's Friday night and Di Stasio Città is heaving like a party scene in a Fellini movie. Every red leather dining chair and lofty black leather barstool is occupied, except for when the occupant is doing the rounds of the room, greeting friends at other tables. People wave at and toast each other to a soundtrack of Italian pop and folk music.
Floor staff – the women in inky-blue cassock dresses draped in scarlet beads, the men white-jacketed or besuited – are in constant motion, as are the video installations by Reko Rennie and Shaun Gladwell on loop behind the bar and high on two walls, their images reflecting off marble and terrazzo. Murano chandeliers hover like giant jellyfish above the bathrooms.
The food and drink are similarly ready for their close-up. One of Melbourne's best Martinis arrives perfectly chilled on a silver tray accompanied by a coupe filled with crushed ice cradling extra olives and a side dish for the pits. Anchovy snacks – a tiny, pizza-like "tartina" topped with a smear of tomato purée, a single anchovy and a tiny basil leaf, or a crisp number with the fillet rolled in a sage leaf, then floured and fried – are served on vintage silver stands like sacramental offerings.
They suit the quasi-religious tone at Rinaldo Di Stasio's new city venture. It's not just the high ceilings and austere polished plaster walls splashed with art that create a temple-like space, but also how fully committed the place is to indulgence. You come here to participate as much as to eat, to forget work tomorrow and agree to another glass of Terlaner Classico or Pio Cesare Barolo. To say yes to an extra serve of classic Neapolitan zeppole di San Giuseppe, the slightly chewy pastry filled and capped with Marsala-tinged custard and crowned with a brandy-soaked cherry. You don't come here to count pennies, drinks or calories. Hedonism is the creed.
The menu, which is large, pricey and, for regulars at St Kilda's Café Di Stasio and Bar Di Stasio, familiar but not repetitive, encourages the approach. It's also available all day until close, so the thrice-cooked duck, available in portions of two, three or four, with a discreet orange backbeat and a salty, reduced duck-stock sauce, can be an afternoon pick-me-up or post-theatre bite as easily as part of lunch or dinner. There's also nothing on the menu to scare the horses. Città is about Italian classics, solidly cooked with carefully sourced ingredients.
This can mean superb morsels of calamari, soft-shell crab, rockling and prawn fried in a brittle batter and served in a paper cone. Or golden roasted suckling pig from Western plains served simply with a slow-roasted apple. Or pasta cooked al chiodo ("to the nail", firmer than al dente), perhaps tossed with a straight-to-the-point mix of guanciale, tomato and pecorino or a rich terracotta-coloured ragù of beef and pork.
There's a lot of ground to cover, and different things for different times. The After School Sandwich from Bar Di Stasio makes an appearance, the merenda of crumbed veal on buttered sliced white served wrapped in foil so the butter melts deep into the bread. The bagna cauda is accompanied by asparagus and tomatoes, and multi-coloured beetroot and carrots for crunch. The canapés selezione, meanwhile, a collection of salty snacks that includes fingers of the pancetta and silverbeet pie called erbazzone, and mozzarella fried in tempura batter and sprayed with a little lemon juice, are particularly appropriate with cocktails (try the Pinka Drinka, a lime-infused gin and tonic stained with a little Campari).
The drinks offer sprawls as much as the food menu. There's a separate list of cocktails, and then a wine list of decent heft that, no surprise, spends much of its time in Italy or among Italian varieties. Like the food menu, it's not a place for bargain hunters. But for those after delicious, well-crafted wines like Elio Ottin's fresh and complex Petite Arvine (from Valle d'Aosta in the north) there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
The most cheerful aspect of Di Stasio Città, though, is how emphatically it's filled a gap that we hadn't realised existed. This glamorous, confident temple of food, art, architecture, hospitality and Italian-Melbourne culture is not just exciting to be in, not just slightly raucous and attitudinal, but also unashamedly and wholeheartedly focused on good times. It's dining as an event. People actually dress up to come here.
Città is at once a throwback to a more excessive past and, perhaps, an embrace of a more hopeful present. It's somewhere beautiful to let your hair down for a few hours before going back to worrying about the state of the real world. What's more, it takes fun seriously, and that may be exactly what we need right now.