If you're yearning for Tuscany but can't get on the plane, Port Melbourne has the answer. Housed in a heritage-listed courthouse dating back to 1850, Ciao Cielo boasts lofty ceilings, huge arch windows, a cosy fireplace and an overall feeling of cosy elegance.
This is not your average red-sauce-and-checked-tablecloth Italian joint. Head chef and owner Bryan Nelson is informed by his frequent pilgrimages to Italy and loves to produce full-flavoured dishes and the kind of plating that will make you swoon — if swooning was still the done thing. Nelson is constantly striving to create the sort of dishes that provoke a sharp intake of breath from diners — both when they're placed in front of them, and when they take a bite.
This is evident from the outset with the lovely array of antipasti. White anchovies? Yes please. What about the house-made woodfired chickpea bread with pesto? Yup. And would you be crazy not to try the suppli filled with mozzarella and spiced braised duck? That's a yes, too. They're crunchy on the outside and incredible flavoursome, and a lovely way to start the meal. No wonder they're one of Rome's most-loved street snacks.
Ordering the pasta is a tempting and rewarding route to take. Ciao Cielo makes its pasta and gnocchi in-house and teams them with some pretty incredible sauces, such as the northern-style oxtail ragu and pipis with white wine and cherry tomatoes. But, when you're in a place run by a chef who likes to push boundaries and be creative, ordering a special is a good way to go, too.
The barramundi in a light tomato broth with braised chickpeas is everything a fish dish should be. Crisp-skinned with light flesh and wonderful accompaniments, it's warming, delicate and also richly flavoursome.
To pair with the Tuscan fare, you can drink local or Italian wine from beautiful glassware or have a cocktail or liquid dessert in one of the snazzy cocktail glasses chosen by co-owner Kate Dixon.
While the weather is currently far from that of an Italian summer, Ciao Cielo is an excellent way to beat the Melbourne chill. With ridiculously good food, transportive atmosphere and lovely service, it's perfect for a date, a special birthday, lunch with your friends or dinner with the parents. All bases covered.