Hospitality futurists’ alert: While Melbourne is hardly lacking in the places-to-eat department, what it certainly needs more of is the good local that’s a couple of notches above the cosy corner bistro. Put it down to insane city rents, insane city competition or simply the desire to have a night out within 15 minutes of home. The smart money’s on the `burbs, and the smarter money’s on the `burbs where people have cash left over after the mortgage, cleaner and dog groomer to spend on life’s moderate pleasures.
A hop and half a skip from Sandringham train station, Baia Di Vino flies the flag for suburban dreaming. Brought to postcode 3191 by the team behind Malvern East’s Riserva, it reprises that successful formula of a dress-up worthy place tuned to a local frequency.
The beach is across the road, allegedly, although it’s impossible to tell in the ink of night, when all eyes turn inwards from the curving picture windows to the big, broad space where sound baffling has been elevated to an art form. Timber beams intersecting the white ceiling inject Old World flavour, while speckled polished concrete floors, tan leather banquettes hugging the perimeter and seating arranged around a jutting white-topped bar add low-fi designer sparkle, taking it from peasant to posh.
The menu from Dino Mohsin is broad-brush Italian neo-classicism. There’s no regional bent here, just a union of dishes that despite their familiarity still make Melbourne go weak at the knees. Sardines, pan-fried to the gold of a Palermo sunset, are topped with a perky caponata studded with pine nuts. Beef tartare goes bold on the soured cream but neutralises it with an equally heavy hand on the cornichons to come up smiling for all but the sternest purists. Fried green olives stuffed with veal are bready but still hold their own as a worthy version of the central Italian snack-tastic classic.
A place that translates as “bay of wine” needs to keep up its vinous end of the bargain, and ex-Rockpool sommelier Vivian Man has a whomping list at his disposal that’s as Aussie-Italian as Vince Colosimo, with special shout-outs to France and a coravin-boosted selection by the glass.
For our money the Italians are where you want to be. A Sicilian grillo with saline grip and restrained fruit does the go-to-whoa with aplomb, making a particularly good match with a flotilla of squid ink agnolotti stuffed with prawn in a buttery bisque-y base with notches of chilli and herbs. There’s a roaring wood fire but no pizza. In its place you’ll get a whole flounder daubed in a white wine sauce, or rolled pork belly, the skin just crackled enough, making BFFs with tiny turnips, their own braised green tops making a worthy root-to-stem statement.
Hopefully we can slate some own-goals that undermine the mission of winning the hearts of the local population down to Baia Di Vino’s early-days status (a miserly four potato crisps with the tartare; the commercial-tasting ice-cream with an amaretto-crumbed rhubarb crumble). But the ledger is balanced more accurately on the pos rather than the neg thanks in no small part to a charming waitress and the buzz of Sandringham-ites of all ages and stripes checking in to see what this newcomer is all about.