Backing up a wildly successful first restaurant with another cracker is never an easy feat, and yet the names behind cult favourite Tipo 00, have managed to hit it out of the ballpark with their new wine bar, Osteria Ilaria. Taking over the Little Bourke Street space next door to its legendary pasta bar sister, this chic newcomer complements rather than competes, steering away from Tipo 00's pure Italianness to take an even bigger bite out of Europe.
The warmly-lit space nails that modern rustic feel; it's all white-painted exposed brick, with an open bar and kitchen down the length and a suave private dining room sitting up the back. And then there's the menu. It's clever enough to pitch this newbie among the Melbourne's contemporary wine bars, yet there's an easiness to the delivery that's primed for that more casual, snack-happy, after-work crowd.
Here, you're invited on a journey across the continent, no matter how deep you fancy diving. Dabble happily in the shallow end, with some oozy porcini croquettes ($3.50 each), and the baby octopus on 'njuda ($8), or settle in for some proper feasting. One of just a couple of pasta appearances, robust folds of paccheri are an expected win, matched with a gutsy tumble of Crystal Bay prawns, tomato, and sorrel ($19). Others in the seafood-heavy lineup of smalls are equally memorable — namely. the sashimi-style kingfish teamed with smoked eel and a lively watercress sauce ($18), and the Pollock-esque plate of baby squid, splashed with a palette of squid ink, saffron and creamy salted cod ($19).
There's a thoughtfulness that carries right through to the pointy end, from the rich roasted duck for two — with a honey-sweet jus balanced by bitter radicchio and the crunch of hazelnuts ($46) — to a textural side dish of creamed corn, pepped up with the addition of grilled turnip tops ($15). Stick around for the grand finale and you'll discover the incredible things that can happen when someone crafts a chocolate mousse on olive oil ($14).
Of course, the drinks list is just as big a drawcard at this joint, equally well-travelled and geared towards exploration. It'll just as likely to find you quaffing a La Soeur Cadette Chardonnay out of Burgundy ($17 glass, $46 carafe), as a single vineyard Xinomavro from Greece ($16 glass), or an elegant drop from Melbourne's own La Sirene Brewing ($16).
It might be an entirely different proposition to its pasta-slinging sister next door, but Osteria Ilaria does what it does extremely well. If you're looking for something a little more casual and accessible, it's the preferred option. You don't have to dig too deep to realise that Osteria Ilaria's got all the makings of another instant classic.
Images: Kristoffer Paulsen.