When Bills in Surry Hills shifted a few doors further down Crown Street, one of Sydney’s longest standing brunch spots was up for grabs. Into the space has moved Caffé Bartolo, an all-day Italian eatery with a pro-dog agenda. There are greyhound portraits on the walls and a helpful water station for your pupper by the front door, and the tables that line the footpath feature a dogwalk of fashionable Inner East pooches playing wingman to their owners’ Bloody Mary-fuelled adventures.
The world’s favourite breakfast cocktail is a good one at Bartolo, which is what we expect from a venue by Jared Merlino, who counts Kittyhawk, Lobo Plantation and Big Poppa’s on his list of achievements. But bars and restaurants are very different beasts, and on our visit breakfast here proves a spotty affair. Our orders are noticeably delayed, and when it arrives the house breakfast roll is not improved by the addition of naked stems of broccolini – it makes something that should be easy to eat more difficult.
Next time we’ll give brunch a pass and opt instead for a dinner visit where the classic Italian styling – marble-topped tables with little posies, warm low light and soft music piped into the room – conjures a convincing little European bistro.
Shellfish fans would do well to order the gnocchi luxuriating in an intensely bisquey sauce the colour of an autumn afternoon and studded with sweet nubs of prawn meat, zucchini flower and a sprinkling of wakame to really hammer home the coastal pungency. A flat iron steak is a very good piece of meat, treated well and served medium rare, but is let down by a salsa verde that is too restrained to be a condiment, but not quite a vegetable sidekick either.
Italian doughnuts filled with jam would have been more memorable served hot, so if you want something sweet to end your evening turn to the cocktail list. In fact, start there too, with a menu of Spritzes that eschew unnecessary fruitiness in favour of bitter and herbal vermouths, liqueurs and rich sherry. Even the humble white wine spritzer gets a run, served with lemon peel. A short, stirred-down mix of nutty sherry, vermouth, verjus and lemongrass doesn’t sound like something that would taste like the ocean, but the complex flavours and gentle salinity in the ‘Sea’ do result in something reminiscent of a coastal holiday. Crank the nostalgia even harder with a ‘Sunscreen’ – rum, cocoa butter, mango and sparkling coconut water as the essence of summer.
Going from breakfast to dinner is a huge remit for any venue, so to get the most from Bartolo play to their strengths – take your dog out for a very European evening of pasta, and cocktails that taste like the summer holiday you wish you were still on.