Were 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 CBDs 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 Vincents, just a block away on Victoria Street.
Thats 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.
Its hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm of Gertrude Streets 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.
Beyond the kitchen is a courtyard decorated with pot plants and dominated by the charcoal grill that churns out Ciuccios 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 waiters 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 were both smitten with the choice.
Likewise, theres nothing pompous or overly sophisticated about the food here, either. Its 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 thats much more pleasant than it might sound.
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. Its 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 dont 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, FitzroyCuisine 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