Showpiece: Chef Matt McConnell’s team keeps patrons entertained.
PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
We’re not even halfway through the year, but it seems likely the Gurney Award for 2012 will go to Casa Ciuccio, the ridiculously tasty new offering from the team behind the CBD’s Bar Lourinha.
After scarfing our way through 13 dishes we can barely speak, let alone coax our swollen bodies out the door. There seems nothing for it but to hail a trolley from St Vincent’s, just a block away on Victoria Street.
That’s the trouble with meeting a menu crammed full of my favourite food cravings. Little skewers, or banderillas, spiked with baby heirloom beets and labneh, that look like lollipops and taste like the Caucasus. More skewers, this time a failsafe combo of shiny-fresh yellowfin tuna and punchy pickled jalapeño chilli. Strips of white anchovy tumbled with cucumber, fennel and celery. Golden crunchy croquettes studded with bullets of smoky chorizo.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm of Gertrude Street’s latest sensation. In the front room it feels like a tapas joint, with diners seated at a communal bar choosing small bites from the “picar” (snack) bar – home of the banderillas and cured fish and meats.
Shelving stacked high against the red-brick wall is filled with single-malt whiskys and wine, canisters, vases and a herd of ceramic donkeys – “ciuccio” in the Naples dialect, apparently. The vibe is part-grandma’s house, part-speakeasy. In the next room, stools at the timber bench edging the servery offer intimate encounters with chef Matt McConnell and his team.
Beyond the kitchen is a courtyard decorated with pot plants and dominated by the charcoal grill that churns out Ciuccio’s signature “coal pit” meats. By the end of this month, when an upstairs dining room, bar and deck are due to open, the casa should be really rocking.
Our waiter’s wine knowledge is terrific and he is generous rather than pompous with it, which is just what you want when confronted with a handpicked list of less-familiar independent and imported wines. He guides us towards a Greco di Tufo from Campania and we’re both smitten with the choice.
Likewise, there’s nothing pompous or overly sophisticated about the food here, either. It’s just quality ingredients and great eating.
Dish of the night goes to the morcilla, a scalding iron skillet of earthy black pudding and light, puffy lentils, fragrant with onion and garlic and well seasoned with paprika and salt.
From the grill menu (five items ranging from king prawns to sweetbreads) we plump for 140 grams of chubby octopus tentacle, very simply dressed with olive oil and some fat-leafed thyme to keep the focus on the flavours of fish and fire. The surface is appealingly charred and chewy, but the centre is so tender it almost melts in the mouth. A sensation that’s much more pleasant than it might sound.
The coal pit is the main event here, but our first encounter with it is odd. Both the fennel-rubbed suckling kid and the day’s special of pork shoulder on a feisty piquillo pepper purée are cooked well (for a minimum of three hours, according to the menu), the meat firm but tender and still moist. But both have a distracting taste of – what is it? Something faintly chemical? Perhaps it’s the coal.
On a subsequent visit there are no issues of dubious taste. Man-sized chunks of free-range pork shoulder and neck arrive swimming in their own juices and tasting of nothing more than slow-roasted pig and the lemon thyme, allspice and garlic in which it was marinated. It’s more than enough to restore my faith in coal-fired cooking.
All the roasts are available in half serves – perfect for one person – and come with hot sauces and baby potatoes roasted dark and delicious in the meat drippings from the pit. Bear them in mind before ordering too heavily from the sides, but don’t miss the beans in sugo. The cracker tomato sauce contains about seven ingredients, but I can only recall the sweet, surprising scent of cinnamon.
The finale to our blowout banquet is a shallow pot of dulce de leche custard mined with vanilla bean that comes straight from the fridge and so takes a while for the caramel flavours to warm up.
In the meantime, we keep ourselves occupied picking off the lavish coating of peanut praline, letting the toffee melt on the tongue a while before crunching it down.
We finally heave ourselves out the front door just after 10pm and the place is still packed. As it should be. The Lourinha team have done it again.
15 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Cuisine \ Mediterranean
Chef \ Matthew McConnell
Hip pocket \ $45-$50 a head for a great feed Drinks extra. Open \ Tuesday to Thursday noon-11pm, Friday and Saturday noon-1am
Highlights \ Food, service, fun
Lowlights \ The volume
Bookings \ Yes you can Phone \ 8488 8150