Before the octopus I had questions. What was the team behind Tipo 00, the Melbourne CBD pasta joint beloved by punters and pundits alike, thinking opening a second, bigger restaurant right next door? Sure, turn up to Tipo without a booking and it can be an hour or more before you're seated, but that's why God invented holding bars. Mightn't opening an Italian restaurant beside your Italian restaurant feel like a consolation prize for its diners and dilute the buzz next door?
But then comes the octopus: bashed flat, char-grilled so the tentacle tips are blackened, and splayed across an artful splash of brick-red sauce rich with 'nduja, anchovies and olive oil. It's all smoke, salt, heat and idealised Sicilian clifftop lunches. Now I get it. This is no consolation prize. Osteria Ilaria is doing it for itself.
Co-owner Alberto Fava, co-owner and manager Luke Skidmore and co-owner and chef Andreas Papadakis
Pasta is where the distinction is clearest. Tipo, as the name implies, is a pasta restaurant. Ilaria isn't. But it's not like they're being doctrinaire about it, so there are still two pasta dishes on the extensive carte. One is paccheri tossed with pieces of prawn, a prawn oil-infused Napoli sauce and a citrusy, deep-green sorrel sauce, the other a ridiculously addictive nettle gnocchi with blue cheese and toasted almonds. They're not to be missed, but there's more going on here. Yes, we can nail pasta, they're saying, but that's not all the good we can do.
Take the roast corn-fed duck: breast and leg brilliantly supported by crisp skin, butter-braised radicchio and a hazelnut Marsala sauce. Or a whole Lakes Entrance whiting, butterflied and boned, head and tail intact, cradling a pile of pipis cooked in garlic, chilli and white wine and a perfectly tuned scatter of sea herbs. Or the cured kingfish, lifted from also-ran status by salty-smoky pieces of eel rendered pancetta-like, plus shaved bottarga and peppery celery leaves.
Inside Osteria Ilaria
The look of Ilaria emphasises independence as well. There's shared design DNA with Tipo 00 (intricately painted concrete floor, wide white marble kitchen pass) but there's also a kitchen bar as well as a regular bar, tan leather booth and banquette seating, a private room down the back, feature wine racks and a seating density that delivers discernible bustle without feeling overstuffed.
More money has been splashed here than next door, and the sleek illuminated wine racks, the open kitchen (where co-owner Andreas Papadakis vies for the title of Melbourne's calmest and most organised chef) and the sophisticated cocktails at the bar suggest that bumping up the restaurant credentials was part of the plan. But somehow it ends up coming across as looser and more wine bar-like than Tipo.
Whiting with pipis and sea herbs
Ilaria's 90-plus seat capacity even makes it feel feasible for you to rock up unannounced for a glass of wine to go with a soufflélike pecorino cheesecake topped with sautéed pine mushrooms or a hefty, rich pork liver sausage teamed with a tart rhubarb and balsamic purée. Or, at the other end of the evening, a refreshing, light-on-its-feet sheep's milk yoghurt semifreddo teamed with caramelised orange zest and candied pistachios.
Wine here is a good idea whether you're in for dinner or just a pit-stop. Co-owner Luke Skidmore, with a bit of help from wine-guy-about-town Raúl Moreno Yagüe, has assembled a strong eight-page list that reads trendaware rather than fashion-fixated. The selection by the glass is generous and interesting and includes gorgeous carricante from Etna by organic producer Alice Bonnacorsi, Bandol rosé from Le Galantin and Flotsam and Jetsam cinsault from Western Cape in South Africa. The fortified list is worth some attention, too, thanks to good tokay from Rutherglen and vintage port from Douro.
Sheep's milk yoghurt semifreddo with pistachio and orange
The arrival of Osteria Ilaria might have taken some pressure off Tipo 00 in terms of putting bums on seats, but it hasn't really done the rest of us any favours. How on earth are you supposed to choose between the two of them? Service is as strong at Ilaria as it is at Tipo, so that won't push it one way or another. That most contemporary of plights, fear of missing out, is ever-present. The straw to clutch at is that either way you're going to eat and drink really well. But that octopus might just swing it.