Calling it a lightbulb moment would be stretching the point, given that it's nearly 20 years since Il Bàcaro first fired up the stoves. But the reaction elicited from eating this particular bowl of pasta in this particular long-running restaurant really deserves a label. An eye-opener, perhaps? A wake-up call? A tap on the shoulder? However you want to define it, the bowl of pasta serves as a potent reminder of just how good Il Bàcaro still is.
The dish has been on the menu in one form or another for years - spaghettini tossed with Moreton Bay bugs and, in the current version, "olio visadi", a mix of olive oil, chilli, garlic, anchovy paste, a little white wine and fish stock.
It's a logical, time-honoured mix of flavours, for sure, but the way it emerges from chef David Dellai's kitchen - the spaghettini defining al dente, the bugs fresh, sweet and juicy, the chilli and the garlic both forceful but not domineering members of the group - makes you understand that it's on the menu for more than sentimental reasons. It's a classic, kept fresh and relevant by great cooking and quality ingredients. You can find yourself closing your eyes as you chew.
The bug pasta is the kind of go-to dish you'd expect to find in a successful, long-running restaurant, the kind that enables Il Bàcaro to sit comfortably alongside places like Café Di Stasio or France-Soir. It's the sort of dish that chefs inherit from their predecessors and which they will probably, first flush, contemplate purging from the menu before understanding such action may lead to crowds of angry pitchfork-brandishing regulars. And so it stays, tweaked here and there, but mostly sticking to the formula.
It's a similar story with Il Bàcaro. Since opening in late 1995 as a suave, Venetian-influenced offshoot of South Yarra's game-changing Caffè e Cucina, the Little Collins Street restaurant has seen different owners (including Maurice Terzini and, currently, Joe Mammone, Graeme Ballentine and manager Marco Tenuta) and different head chefs (Simon Beaton, Riccardo Momesso and Maurice Esposito among them), but it has never dramatically changed its tune.
So how is it, in a packed restaurant landscape so enthralled with the new and the queue, that this "elderly" member of the species continues to play to strikingly regular packed houses? How has it lasted when so many other businesses over the last 20 years have come and gone, changed direction or settled into mediocre coasting?
The dining room is a major part of the equation. It's so well put together that you could make a good argument for having it heritage listed: a perfect graduate of the mid-'90s Melbourne-Italian restaurant school.
From the outside, it's closed off from the street, mysterious behind its black canopied and timber Venetian-screened front windows. Inside, the cosy dimensions, dim lighting, timber panelling, central marble and timber bar, closely spaced tables dressed with crisp white linen and carefully aligned rows of bottles - tropes that occur endlessly elsewhere - seem here to be completely as and where they should be.
It's a sexy restaurant for sure, timelessly elegant and as fitting for power-lunching lawyers as it is for late-night relationship kick-starting.
The service plays its part, too. Not as flirty as at France-Soir or as insouciantly lippy as Café Di Stasio, the Il Bàcaro style is all about charm and passion. Specials are announced with such heartfelt enthusiasm that it feels almost like an imperative to order, say, the prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella and fresh figs lest you miss out on something that's obviously remarkable. That the combination mostly lives up to the spiel with all the ingredients pulling their weight with equal finesse allows you to settle back, secure in the knowledge that no one here appears to be talking through their hat.
Not everything on the Il Bàcaro menu is as simple as those figs and prosciutto, the bug pasta or the excellent shallow-fried calamari. Though he sticks to the general Il Bàcaro template, Dellai likes to add some modern technique, fancy plating and slightly obscure ingredients to the equation when he can. Mostly he gets the balance right, but there can be times when there's a little too much going on.
A pumpkin and saffron risotto, for example, is garnished with a pumpkin-seed crust, dried cranberries, confit porcini and shavings of buffalo-milk ricotta. Dellai is a skilled enough practitioner to make all the players work together, even if, as in this case, it may have been better to have a couple of them sit it out on the bench.
At other times, the complexity is not an issue.
A mix of wagyu carpaccio and bresaola neatly edges into tartare territory with the addition of a steamed egg yolk and mustard cream, then he throws in some smoked Black Russian tomatoes and pickled garlic to further mess with your expectations, before heading back to trad Italian territory with the addition of a couple of admirable house-made crostini.
Raw kingfish, dressed with a little lemon oil, shares a plate with dramatically coloured black garlic mayo, salty-tangy sea blight that's been compressed with white balsamic vinegar and bright orange salmon roe. It's a combination that pops and fizzes with colour and saline, vinegary flavour.
Then there's quail, marinated with garlic and chilli, served with whipped organic quark (the tangy cottage-like cow's milk cheese), vincotto-marinated figs and a crunchy toasted bread and pine-nut crumble, or the quite brilliant roast suckling pig, accompanied by noteworthy crackling and a fennel trinity of fennel salt, fennel cream and candied fennel.
Roast duck, another menu stalwart and standout, is tweaked by Dellai from time to time with a variety of different seasonal sides. It might arrive with mustard fruits, celeriac and rainbow chard, or perhaps pickled figs, almond purée and very good blood pudding. The main event, sourced from central Victoria, consists of both breast and leg first poached in duck stock flavoured with cinnamon and juniper, then baked to order. Crisp skin, gorgeous golden-brown colouring, just the right amount of fat and plenty of flavour are all very much in evidence.
It's robustly flavoured food with a high comfort factor and a great affinity with wine, logical given that Il Bàcaro's wine list, a document of quality and breadth, has been one of its drawcards since day one.
Not surprisingly there's a strong Italian lean to the list in terms of both labels and varieties. Barolo fans (particularly cashed-up Barolo fans) will be well pleased, but there's plenty for those on the hunt for more obscure and regional varieties or for boutique and blockbuster labels from Australia. A generous by-the-glass offering enables some very rewarding jumping back and forth between hemispheres, weights and flavours.
Desserts are where Dellai rows the boat out furthest from the Italian shore, but he still keeps land in sight. A whole Fuji apple is poached in anise-flavoured honey syrup before being baked until it's warmed through and finished with a mix of a reduction of the poaching liquid and a slosh of apple and chestnut liqueur. It's then plonked in the middle of a pile of fairytale-like pure white snow, made from a frozen, blitzed and Thermomixed mixture of Italian meringue and ricotta. It looks great and gets further flavour and textural support from a toasted berry and nut crumble.
A rather good browned butter panna cotta, meanwhile, is served with poached rhubarb (flavoured a couple of ways, including with grenadine, lemon and orange juice that adds a full-bodied tartness to proceedings) and amaretti biscuit crumbs.
There's good reason to slap Il Bàcaro on the back and heartily shake its hand on the strength of its longevity alone. And - ask any restaurateur - congratulations are certainly in order for it sticking around and maintaining relevance (and custom) for as long as it has.
But age is not what defines or commends it.
Sure, there's an attractive patina to these long-standing places, a well-oiled quality that's a welcome counterpoint to so much shiny and new. But the real - the only - reason Il Bàcaro has stuck around is because it's good at what it does. It makes dining out a pleasure.