With a history steeped in Melbourne Mafia, this bar brings a cosy, speakeasy-style space to Fitzroy North.
Alphonse Gangitano must have left abruptly when he abandoned his underground casino in the early 90s. The Melburnian crime boss — now immortalised as a character in Underbelly — may have met a grisly demise, but he left behind some sweet real estate on an unassuming Fitzroy North side-street. Untouched for 20-odd years, it was only recently that a trio of hospitality entrepreneurs stumbled across the venue and went about returning it to its former glory. But this time without the gambling.
The original venue was so well preserved that there wasn't a lot to do in terms of renovation, other than wipe off the dust and restock the wine racks. The interior — with its rich textural palate of blood red surfaces, antique wood finishes and brocade wall-features — is rather lush. Rather than coming across as intimidating, however, it manages to create an atmosphere of intimacy and homeliness. "What we didn't want was a very stiff and formal wine bar," says head chef Almay Jordaan. "So we tried to create to a place that feels like your local watering hole. Something family friendly, but with a focus on wonderful wine and seasonal food."
French trained, Jordaan says she draws inspiration from European peasant food, and has created a daily changing menu that's responsive to the seasons and to Melbourne's notoriously bi-polar weather. In the cooler months, expect dishes such as pork shoulder, prune and hazelnut terrine, caper mayonnaise and toast ($15), or slow roast jumbuck, broad beans, watercress and hazelnut dressing ($26).
Your only challenge will be choosing a wine to match from the expansive offering; with a collection of over 300 bottles, and new additions each week, the owners might need to start investing in some IKEA storage solutions. But don't fear if you're no professional sommelier — the slick, approachable staff are more than happy to talk you through the wine list and suggest an ideal match. For those going by the glass, there are six whites and six reds on offer, as well as a small selection of sparkling, rose, sherry and fortified. Added bonus: a new feature bottle is opened each day, to pour at 'mates rates' (on the night we visited, a Koshu from Japan featured at $10 a pop).
As the crowds bloom on a Friday night, things become even cosier. Couples playing footsie over a glass of sherry happily coexist with a group of boisterous blokes who hog the enormous snooker table in one room; a table of Mum and Dad diners sit amongst the debris of half-empty wine bottles and plates of cured meats in the next (all indicators of a meal thoroughly enjoyed). The noise level's high, but so are spirits — and if you listen closely, you might just hear the clinking of cash and casino chips ... remnants of the gangster ghouls who once ran the neighbourhood.