Theres a nice symmetry to the arrival of Guy Grossis Merchant at the Rialto. Aside from the fact that Grossi and his partners, the Grollos, have ties to north-eastern Italy, Rialto was Venices first harbour, home to a bustling market beside the Grand Canal in the 11th century. So an ancient centre of commerce is referenced in a modern centre of commerce, half a world and a thousand years away.
A replica gondola in the Rialto forecourt signposts Grossis bright, casual osteria a relaxed wine bar serving typical northern-Italian dishes. A raised deck offers al fresco dining but most diners head inside to where Grossi has re-created a little corner of the Veneto at the business end of Collins Street.
Staff attend promptly to guests and bustle about the space with pep and purpose. The girls are dressed in belted indigo frocks by Leona Edmiston teamed with gleaming white pumps the sort of gay outfit a young lass might wear in spring, in Rome, on the back of a Vespa, while clutching George Clooney. The boys are all business up top white shirts and waistcoats and party down below in jeans and sneakers. The combination of the staffs exotic accents (French, Italian, um, English) with the vivacious décor makes the Merchant feel a little like a film set. A frisson of excitement runs through the place.
Its either over-excitement or force of habit in our share-plate-obsessed city that leads us to order eight dishes. If wed stuck to cicchetti, those bite-sized Italian bar snacks that run to arancini, paté and sardines here, wed have been fine. But our binge extends to polenta, risotto and steak, along with calamari, oysters, tuna and pasta. Ouf. And we gobble down dessert, too.
Given the banquet before us, there should be something that leaps out and leaves an impression, but we find the flavours oddly subdued.
A tuna carpaccio from the menus raw and cured section is nicely seared at the edges and hemmed with a basil-heavy herb paste, but the fish is too sinewy and not enjoyable.
A scotch fillet from Hopkins River is nicely charred from the grill, rewardingly juicy and seasoned with a spoonful of salsa verde. It is good steak but, again, it got me thinking of one I had recently that was better (the gutsy tagliata on dressed wild rocket at Becco).
Our final instalment, lightly battered and chunky apple fritters dusted with icing sugar and served with an intensely cinnamon ice-cream, saves the day. If they sold that ice-cream by the tub, Id buy two on the spot.
This is, at heart, a wine bar, and lovers of the grape will be transported by Merchants cellar list, an impressive 150-strong inventory of largely northern-Italian wines, from flighty pinot grigios to fruity pinot neros. Next time, I plan to eat less, drink more and, hopefully, stumble across some more distinctive dishes.
495 Collins Street (Rialto building), city.
Chefs Guy Grossi, Daniel Airo Farulla
Hip pocket Three courses about $60 a head; grazing can be less.
Open Mon-Sat 7am-11pm
Highlights Fun space and concept, bright staff.
Lowlights Some disappointing dishes.
Phone 9614 7688.