Anybody seeking an instance of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts should make a booking at Lupino. Sitting between the high brick wall of the Melbourne Club's secret garden and the crowd-pleasing Iberian moves of Bar Lourinhã, this latest instalment in the familiar Melbourne Italian restaurant story is fronted by two men - Marco Lori and Richard Lodge - last seen together in the glory days of Becco. Both these men are, of course, perfectly capable of operating a business without the other, but as duos ranging from Laurel and Hardy to fish and chips have proved, something special can be created when two simpatico talents work together.
Lori and Lodge have another partner in Lupino, one George Sykiotis, who, with the stable of restaurants he co-owns under the Made Establishment brand (formerly Press Club Group) and with his involvement in various other businesses (including Michael Lambie's latest, The Smith), is one of those influential industry figures with a deft touch and a good eye. Sykiotis shows his smarts with both his choice of partners and the fact that he allows them room to give each business its own personality rather than pushing for a probably cheaper and more practical homogeneity.
It's an approach that's clear at Lupino, which flags the aims and ambitions of its two owner-operators from the moment you spot the subtle red neon wolf's head over the restaurant's front door. Inside, the highly polished concrete floors, the use of brick-like terracotta tiles on the bar and along the back of the olive green banquettes and, most particularly, the black macramé light fittings and room divider (by local artist Sarah Parkes) add an attractive retro-suburban whimsy to the place that's familiar and comfortable. The approach is also reflected in the way that the bread (house-made ciabatta) arrives nestled in a paper napkin with foil-wrapped butter in a woven basket. And with the presence of jars of pickled vegies on the counters, the oversized containers of Nutella lining the shelves, and the electric pizza oven in the open kitchen.
The illusion comes unstuck a little with the unpainted metal ducting that hangs heavily over the bar (it looks as if it would be happier in a slicker warehouse or industrial space). Keep your eyes lowered to the level of the bar and the kitchen that sit side-by-side behind marble and wood tops, though, and the homely welcoming vibe remains mostly intact.
Achieving this sort of hospitable feel in a brand-new restaurant is not easy, but Lupino has the advantage of having Lodge as a constant presence on the floor. His particular brand of laid-back affability will be familiar to anyone who ate at Becco, and the balancing act that makes remarkably accurate service and precision timing seem easy works a treat here too.
This comes to the crux of why Lupino - a modest Italian bistro and wine bar that might initially seem like any number of businesses across Melbourne - lifts itself above most of the pack. It's because those skills of Lodge and the retro-nostalgic feel of the dining room are perfectly mirrored by Lori's approach in the kitchen.
One of the best examples of this compatibility comes at the end of the meal with Lori's version of a trifle. For one thing, it's served in a stemmed glass that sits on a paper doily. Then there are its perfectly visible layers: a vanilla bean crème pâtissière folded with mascarpone; a ganache-like layer of chocolate; a jewel-like cranberry jelly; pale sponge studded with Grand Marnier-soaked sultanas; and, to top it all off, a perfectly formed sphere of lolly-pink blood-orange sorbet. These layers look and read like another time, but with their emphasis on texture and purity of flavour over sweetness, they're so perfectly enjoyable to eat right here and now. It makes the statement that some things - quality, flavour, paper doilies - never grow old.
That statement is made often on the reasonably compact menu, which starts with some snack-like appetisers such as the polpetti, meatballs made from veal and pork mince. They're mixed with milk and parmesan before being braised in the oven, and arrive at the table lolling in a superb, slightly chunky brick-red sugo that Lori makes from four different varieties of tomato. It's there again in the parmigiana melanzane, all layers of flat-grilled eggplant with Napoli sauce, cheese and basil.
It's best to leave it to cool a little before tucking in as the depth of flavour really kicks in once the heat has dissipated. Try spreading some on bread with a little of the fiery house-made chilli oil for an authentically rustic, home-style experience.
There are four sparingly topped pizze available at Lupino plus a daily special, but it seems that the kitchen is yet to completely master the oven's foibles. The anchovy version that sports both Sicilian pickled anchovies and Spanish preserved ones is a clever oily-salty combination, but it's let down slightly by the fluffy, thin base that tastes good and has a decent amount of charring at the edges but can, at times, arrive almost dramatically limp.
No such concerns accompany the small bunch of asparagus bundled together with a generous wrapping of prosciutto and finished in the pizza oven, sharing pan space with a combination of chicken stock, browned butter and parsley. The bundle is topped with the delightfully named squacquerone (a soft, sweet-sour cow's milk cheese), then the liquids are poured over the top, melting the cheese and melding all the flavours into a thoroughly satisfying and lively whole.
There's liveliness too in the two-page wine list, a collection of labels that, apart from the Champagne, is mostly about Italian labels and Australian versions of Italian varietals (the pinot grigios hail from Abruzzo, Trentino, Friuli and Adelaide) at prices that should convince any waverers that a second bottle is a sound investment. The list includes a small, nicely curated collection of digestives and grappa and such is the feel of the room at night - pleasantly dim, rowdy, lively, with an eclectic soundtrack that might range from Italian opera to Fleetwood Mac - that it seems curmudgeonly not to take advantage of it. And you might feel the need for digestives after a meal here because there's a generosity to the serves that, in a city increasingly used to pared-back small plates designed for sharing and snacking, can lead to over-ordering.
It's difficult not to want a bit of everything on this greatest-hits-type list. How do you choose between the house-made tortelloni stuffed with chicken mousse and a generous whack of garlic sitting in a clear, sparkling chicken brodo with chunks of bocconcini, basil and fresh tomato, and the siren song of a textbook chicken saltimbocca, pan-seared with butter, wine and stock and served with garlicky cime di rapa? Or between the superb Caprese salad, all multicoloured heirloom tomatoes, perfect basil leaves and fiore di burrata, and a classically rendered carpaccio, deep pink, thoroughly marbled and tossed with tiny capers packing a vinegary punch?
Ordering dessert is non-negotiable in menu negotiations at Lupino - if not the excellent trifle then the slightly ugly but revelatory bomboloni with their crunchy, sugary crusts, attractively chewy interiors and generous smears of Italian Nutella (more about nuts and less about sugar than the Australian version). It's the sort of dessert your Italian grandmother would make for you if you were lucky enough to have a nonna who loved you very much.
The food that Lori cooks at Lupino certainly shows the sort of care and attention (and perhaps even some of the love) that you might expect in a happy, functional, food-obsessed home. And with plenty of care being taken front of house too, a meal here can feel both comfortingly familiar and attractively fresh. No new ground is being broken, no palates are challenged and no traditions trashed. Lodge and Lori have simply put their particular act back on the road and the Melbourne dining scene is a happier place for it.