Bootleg Italian arrived late 2021, after a couple of false starts (thanks again Covid) and has made an instant impression. Occupying a spot just a stone's throw from William Street, a neon pink sign lights the way to this new neighbourhood gem. Formerly a take-away burger joint, owner and former hairdresser Sam Overton saw potential in the space for a locals hangout, a place you could come to a few nights a week, a place, according to the signs, promising Eats. Beats. Booze. The room is long and narrow with the ‘restaurant’ occupying the front half and the ‘bar’ out the back, neatly bisected by the kitchen's pass.
The fit-out feels distinctly “Italian” with its black-and-white tiled floor, white tablecloths and single yellow roses on each table; romance, but make it old-school. Look around the room however and you find olive green walls and a hot pink ceiling, and though it could come off as a jarring techni-coloured fever dream, the effect is anything but. The tables are set with pink plates to match the ceiling, and its little details like this that tie it all together so comfortably. The vibe in here is electric with groups of two or four filling out the room and the unmistakable buzz of Friday night bringing some big energy. It’s a fun place to be, without a hint of pretentiousness. The staff are well-informed and friendly and the infectious drive of owner Overton clearly spills all through the place as he moves around the room sharing laughs and tips with guests
If it’s a drink to start, go for a Bootleg Margarita and you’re bound to be impressed. While spicy watermelon Margaritas seem to be the flavour of the month, this is a particularly good rendition, with the heat dialed up to the perfect amount. If a spiced Marg isn’t your style, grab a glass of wine from the funky and succinct list of up and coming Australian producers. When you’re ready to eat tuck in to some fluffy dough balls, baked to order and smothered in garlic butter, don’t be surprised to find yourself mopping up every last drop. The truffle and mushroom arancini are a hit, with white wine sugo and ricotta, but what really sets these apart is an extra crunch factor thanks to the use of panko. Order a plate of Bootleg ‘salami’ and step into the unknown (more on this later). When it’s pasta time we are told that the vodka rigatoni is the house special so we pair that up with the cacio e pepe: two classic and simple dishes that deliver a huge amount of joy and satisfaction, full of creamy-cheesy goodness and perfectly al dente pasta (all made in-house every day). This is great comfort food and hits the spot.
It’s time now to address the elephant in the room; Bootleg is a vegan restaurant. A vegan Italian restaurant. All of that salami and cheesy-creamy deliciousness? Fakes. Darn good fakes. Rather than running from dairy and meat to base his vegan menu around plants and grains, Overton has gone all in and had a serious crack at recreating the textures and flavours of our farmyard friends, such quintessential elements of the Italian kitchen. The salami is visually very impressive, it looks just like the real thing but alas it falls short of the salty and intensely earthy flavour and texture of cured meat. Order it with an open mind, it’s playful and tasty with an almost Christmas-spice flavour. As for the pasta sauces, it’s genuinely easy to forget that you aren’t actually eating the real deal. Finish up with the tiramisu and we promise you won’t even miss the cow-based cream. The food is confident and shows that you can certainly enjoy a hearty Italian meal without any animals being harmed in the process.
It may be a relatively new kid on the block but somehow Bootleg feels like it has been here far longer, such is the seamless atmosphere. The menu makes no mention anywhere of being vegan, which is equal parts cheeky and charming, but moreover this is what we think of when we hear “Italian”. It’s the time-tested mentality of food and drink bringing people together and making it a party at the same time that really wins us over. What could be more Italian than that?