Grossi Florentino Grill's recent closure for a quick nip and tuck had many in Melbourne's design and business communities reaching for the smelling salts. Florentino's retro-cool mid-range offering was designed by architect Robin Boyd in 1959 and has been a power-lunch epicentre ever since. It was given a fairly thorough going-over in the 1980s, but it's nonetheless the sort of place where change of any kind is viewed with suspicion. So the absence of any howls of outrage since it reopened surely points to business as usual, right?
Maybe at first glance. The room looks familiar beyond the immediately obvious changes - the sleeker, darker but structurally intact dining room, absence of linen from the tables, the '80s light fittings banished to design purgatory. White-aproned waiters, led by owner-chef Guy Grossi's son Carlo, a man with exquisitely tuned hospitality instincts, still weave and squeeze past each other and the closely packed tables to the open kitchen at the back of the room. The wood panelling may be several shades darker, the timber floor upgraded to heftier American oak to soften sound levels, but they're still part of the past. Prime positions are the same as they ever were - the tables at the enormous picture windows framing Bourke Street.
But sniff the air: wood smoke. It comes from the newly installed asado and Josper oven and is kept to a fragrant, atmospheric minimum by a huge, sleek, dark, super-powerful hood that hovers above the chefs working behind the kitchen bar. The smoke is the first hint of the real changes at Florentino Grill - the changes that now give the name real weight.
Every second dish among the main courses is given either the wood-grill or wood-fired-oven treatment. As at a traditional Tuscan grill, the cooking is simple, and quality ingredients - meat, fish, vegetables - take the lead.
There's a brilliant White Rocks veal chop served with grilled witlof, and a cheek of lemon that's slightly charred and caramelised on the outside so the juice runs as smoky-sweet as it does acidic. Skull Island prawns are flavoured simply with lemon, chilli and a lick of smoke from the grill, and wild barramundi is cooked with Tasmanian mussels, farro and tomatoes in the Josper, the smoke adding another layer to the rich, stew-like combo.
Meticulously sourced beef has its own section on the menu: five different steaks from the renowned likes of Rangers Valley and O'Connor, plus a big Angus rib-eye built for two from John Dee. The meat is respectfully and skilfully handled and simply presented, sharing the plate with only a grilled lemon.
The sparse plating makes digging into the contorni obligatory. The sides are mostly classics. A brilliantly dressed panzanella. Sweet grilled baby lettuce. Rosemary and garlic potatoes.
The richly flavoured side of grilled cauliflower with currants, pine nuts, farro and sheep curd breaks the Grill's "Tuscan and surrounds" brief a little with its south-meets-north Italian approach. This willingness to bend the regional rules could be read as a nod to the past.
The old Grill took a pan-Italian greatest hits approach, but in this latest incarnation Guy Grossi and his head chefs Mario Di Natale and McKay Wilday only allow other regions to get a look-in under strictly controlled conditions, mostly in the form of the daily three-course lunch special.
This "Love Italy" menu (named in a deft piece of cross-promotion for Grossi's book of the same name) offers three courses from a region that's not Tuscany. The first to get a guernsey under the new, regularly changing regime is Sicily, with the three courses including a grilled cuttlefish and fennel dish, a classic cassata and a quite brilliant pasta: spaghetti tossed with pesto Trapanese - a combination of tomato, almonds, garlic and basil.
Pasta is a real player at the new Grill, a drawcard in its own right, despite the alluring waft of grilling flesh.
Don't miss the testaroli, a pancake-like pasta made from a dough of flour, water and salt that's poured onto a super-hot cast-iron pan (traditionally a testo) so the dough bubbles and cooks, almost like a thin crumpet. It's then cut into pieces and boiled briefly to order before being tossed with a simple mix of parmesan, roughly torn basil leaves and olive oil. The classic flavours are clean and pure, and texturally it's a knockout.
Pappardelle with porcini and duck ragù is more traditional but equally compelling. The ribbons of pasta, a gorgeous yellow from abundant yolks, are of a textbook silkiness. The sauce is made from roasted duck legs, with just a touch of delicious skin in the mix, making for a result that's wonderfully rich without overstepping the mark.
There's plenty of northern Italian goodness to be had among the menu's primi section, too. Scallops, warmed through in the wood oven, are topped with a little swirl of sautéed baby leeks and a nicely textured crumb of fried bread and crisped-up 'nduja.
Peppers, blackened over the fire, are flavoured with garlic olive oil and basil. Where many similar dishes end up slimy, this version instead exhibits a lovely smoky softness, aided and abetted by some fresh whipped ricotta.
Musetto with parsley oil.
Musetto, rendered here as a terrine-like sausage made from pig's head, is superb, served very simply with mustard and parsley oil, while pickled tongue, boiled with aromatics before being peeled, sliced, sautéed with shallots and finished in the Josper, arrives with salsa verde and thinly sliced radishes.
Then there's calamari, simply flavoured with lemon, chilli, parsley and oil before being quickly grilled and served with a punchy sauce made from fish stock, squid-ink, tomato paste and white wine, or fresh raw kingfish drizzled with celery oil, topped with celery leaves and finished with not-so-Tuscan finger lime. It might not be a strictly classifiable regional Italian dish, but it works a treat.
None of this food is hard to match with wine. But there's no coasting with the list. It runs to about 50 pages, including an impressive full page of beers, plus lists of classic and original cocktails. The four different aperitivo combinations are both hefty and inspired.
There's a good selection of wine by the glass, including a page of premium-end choices kept pristine by a Coravin system. There are three vintages of Bricco Giubellini Barolo, for example (2007, 2008, 2009), and the beautiful 2012 Friulano blend from Livio Felluga, made from grapes grown near the border of Slovenia.
For the many who might baulk at the idea of paying $30-plus for a glass of wine, no matter how pure its pedigree, there's plenty of other reasonably priced stuff. There's a good showing from France (two pages of Champagne alone) and Australia, including a smattering of benchmark labels. There's also a cracking list of dessert wines that includes several Tuscan vin santos.
The Grill's dessert list contains one of the only dishes to survive from the old menu - tiramisù. It's a worthy keeper, a fine, boozy, specimen of its breed. But if you want to stay with the new, the chocolate dessert with amarena cherries is the path to choose. An almost ganache-like mousse is sprinkled with chocolate cake and crumbs of sbrisolona (Lombardy's biscuity cake), then teamed with the cherries and a particularly good ricotta ice-cream. It's rich but not too sweet and nicely textured.
The changes at Grossi Florentino Grill are not earth-shattering - a good thing when it's been a consistent and constant presence on Melbourne's dining scene for nearly 60 years. No one wants to see that kind of legacy trashed. Still, cleaning the frescoes can be a good thing. In fact, when that process involves great ingredients, skilled and careful cooking, a thorough working knowledge of regional authenticity and a new kitchen that's all about fire and smoke, it can reveal colour anew.