Update: We attended this venue in September 2018 and some details may have altered since then.
Capitano, brought to you by the Bar Liberty crew, is bigger, brighter and louder than its Johnston Street sibling, offering far more approachable food and booze but keeping the quality, fun and delightful service. The repurposed Beaufort is now sporting cream walls and big windows on two sides that feel clean and classic; deep red trim recalling old-school French bistro flatware; and everyone here seems engrossed in lively conversation. Capitano is a fundamentally social place, the menu’s purpose is to lubricate and satisfy rather than draw focus from your companions.
The stated inspiration here is Italian-American, and you can see the influence in the 'gabagool' starter (it’s the New Jersey-Italian pronunciation of the cured pork salumi usually called cappiccola), and the vodka sauce on one of two pasta dishes. But apart from these scant nods, Capitano is all Melbourne. There’s only a few simple choices food wise, but all the bases are covered. The bubbly and chewy pizza dough is as good as any in town, served in small, dense rounds unlike the giant floppy ones you’d find in New York. If you’re hungry, grab a veal parmigiana on the bone for two with some salad on the side.
Unlike Liberty, the drinks list is short, understated and excellent instead of wide-ranging and esoteric. Wines by the glass are approachable with a focus on Italian styles, and there are some great deals by the bottle. The back bar is dominated by amaros and vermouths, so take the opportunity to explore these forgotten bottles from the old country, just don’t come expecting a million gins or whiskies.
But most of all, drink cocktails. Developed by Nick Tesar and Darren Leaney, the list takes Italian restaurant classics and elevates them to high art without sacrificing their comforting familiarity. A Rosso Spritz combines Italian rose with raspberry and bergamot syrup to give herbal complexity to this frivolous fizzy drink; and saffron in the Negroni brings an earthy, floral note to your favourite aperitif. The Tiramisu is probably the best and most surprising dessert cocktail we’ve ever had. Perfectly clear liquid comes over a block of ice old-fashioned-style, and while it looks like a vodka on the rocks, it tastes exactly like its namesake sweet with clarified milk punch, coffee and marsala nailing both the texture and flavour.
These drinks, and this place, feels like a coming of age for Melbourne’s casual Italian and cocktail scene. It’s the modern Italian bar that Melbourne needed, proving we can update the format without losing our soul.