Gosh, the Italians do glamour well. With notable exceptions (Silvio Berlusconi; Al Pacino’s shirts during the 1980s) it’s a nation that breeds good taste. And Bar Carolina, the new addition to Joe Mammone’s boutique Italian stable of Il Bacaro and Sarti, exudes Latin charm from its terrazzo foyer to its bar clad in charcoal steel. And we haven’t even mentioned the quorum of liltingly accented waiters who marshal the crowds one ‘ciao bella’ at a time.
It’s a slim, corner spot making Toorak Road great again, and another member of the restaurant club (hello, Longrain) that was laughingly delayed in the construction phase but has made up for it by unveiling a triumph of design. At once modern and classic, the Chris Connell-led fitout is a seamless melange of herringbone parquetry and sleek wall scones that scream both ‘imported’ and ‘expensive’. It’s beautiful – a situation that extends to the clientele. Birds of a well groomed feather do indeed flock together.
Melbourne is no stranger to great Italian restaurants. From the luxurious minimalism of Rosetta and the aristocratic traditions of Grossi Florentino, to the excitingly authentic likes of Pasta Adagio and Tipo00, we’ve got the lot. Bar Carolina shows every sign of following its older siblings into Melbourne’s Ivy League of Italians with a menu that serves two masters – old faithfuls and technique-driven modern twists, two sides that mostly manage to happily coexist with just a little whiplash for the unwary.
For the former there are fried zucchini flowers stuffed with garlicky salt cod brandade, the kind of dish you’d expect to find in some hilltop village trattoria in the Puglian hinterland. In the same camp, capretto brasato – slow-cooked baby goat with broad beans and ribbons of salted ricotta – is the kind of dish that could adorn any table from a humble osteria to ristorante level.
Pasta hounds ought to beeline for the tagliolini, the thin strips anointed with a luxe combination of Moreton Bay bug meat and the umami thrum of porcini mushrooms and a thicket of dried chilli slivers on top. It proves not all good pasta is ugly. For those willing to push the boat out a little more, there’s no better place to start than the vitello tonnato, a version of the classic that deserves inverted commas thanks to its topsy-turvy rendering with poached veal cubes and raw tuna sashimi joined asunder by pickled shimeji mushrooms and dainty dabs of anchovy mayo. Some will call it a travesty; we call it delicious.
Aperol spritz is Bar Carolina’s spirit animal but the wine list is cause for huzzahs. Start with a $22 glass of Ruinart Champagne then move onto a list of mostly Italians, both native and abroad. A fresh and fruity Marabino chardonnay from Sicily, at $70, is just the ticket across most of the menu but the list by the glass is both gratifyingly long and satisfyingly priced.
At dessert, the orb’s a showstopper that has the ladies in Camilla kaftans at the next table cooing over the white chocolate bauble that spills a tiramisù-flavoured centre. For some it will be the highlight of their dining year, for others too much fuss for something that didn’t require a redux involving coffee jelly. But above all Bar Carolina knows its crowd – and for this crowd too much is hardly ever enough.