Eat with the fishes
Crostone of Calamaretti. Photo: Graham Tidy
I know it's just West Row, but there's something timeless about sitting in these well-used seats at Mezzalira. The huge windows on the corner here in the Melbourne Building, looking through the arched walkway that hasn't changed much in the 80-plus years since they were installed.
Sure, there are not many horse-drawn carts trotting up London Circuit now, but I'm just guessing it would have been easier to find a place to tie up the horse back then, than it is to find a car space now. In fact, the car park issue is my biggest anxiety about dragging myself into town. Seriously, is there some secret spot where people in the know park? I spent 20 minutes going round in circles before saying, hang it, and parking directly in front of the court house. One of the benefits of driving a tradies-style ute, apart from the obvious unbridled manliness of it, is that you can park in these places and the people you would fine you think you're here to fix something, so leave you be.
Despite its longevity, Mezzalira still offers a menu that looks up to date and enticing. I can't help comparing it to all these new places breezing in with casual themes and simple menus based around a busy deep-fryer and a penchant for getting attention. I guess it's like cars. It's so easy to impress with your first car, sporty, no child seat, blue-tooth connectivity, but to make the distance you need to be much more dependable and sensible. Like a Prius. No, I'm no longer making sense here. But what I'm getting at is that it takes more than just a good idea to make it long term in this trade and I think the Trimboli family has that in Mezzalira. While its sister restaurant, Italian and Sons, impresses no end and is more adventurous, Mezzalira has its own appeal, with a classic Italian ristorante feel.
Fiore Di Capra, goats cheese, honey glazed beet root and caramelised red onion. Photo: Graham Tidy
Our waiter (we didn't catch his name as he speaks heavily Italian accented English at a million miles an hour) runs through the specials. We nod pleasantly, then read them ourselves from the blackboard once he goes. Turns out he has come all the way from near Lake Como in northern Italy. Lake Como in northern Italy to Canberra? It took a while for this to sink in. Who does that?
It is pretty cool getting him to repeat back to you, correctly, the Italian wines that come not far from his home. ''Certainly,'' he says. ''Due Anselmi Croce Soave.'' Yep, that one. ($12 a glass). It's quite a wine, leaning almost towards a natural wine with its opulent, heady aromas of toasted nuts, highland cheese and leatherwood honey, along with the velvety smooth guava-laced palate. Perfectly at home with the super crispy focaccia with rosemary. It doesn't get much better than this as a starter. We follow up with a bottle of barbera, which gets into me Godfather mode, which has my partner looking elsewhere. ''Itsa Sicilian message,'' I say and repeat for no reason. ''Means Luca Brasi, he sleeps with da fishes.''
Crostini with calamari with asparagus caponata ($16) is a tidy arrangement, served sort-of warm. Two toasted slices of bread topped with thick slices of fat asparagus - yummo - with diced tomato, onion and capers, then topped again, with finely criss-crossed calamari and some suspiciously small herbs. Haven't we moved on from micro-herbs? Ultimately, this is a simple dish, a peasant dish, fresh seasonal ingredients tossed together deftly.
Our other entree is a risotto. There's something about white asparagus that really speaks Italy and spring. Risotto agli asparagi bianchi ($25) is a white puddle of perfectly cooked rice, they use my favourite acquarello brand here, which isn't the cheapest but it holds its texture for much longer during cooking so you get this very creamy look and mouthfeel along with little granules of just cooked rice. So it's a liquid, just, and finished with salty bottarga, another Sicilian specialty. It's hard to fault this risotto for balance and flavour.
Next, there is a pregnant pause heading towards being an uncomfortable gap between entree and mains. This is filled to an extent with a couple of little tarts filled with Italian goat's cheese, red-onion marmellata and glazed beetroot ($19). These are a free offering, perhaps because of the wait, and they are brilliant and a modern expression of cucina Italiano, again with good quality seasonal ingredients on show.
The Pio Cesare Barbera, the name of which Manolo, we got his name by now, politely repeats for us on request, is a wine of character, rustic, earthen, plums and licorice. Very much at home among the food.
In the mains, seared swordfish fillet with peach and marinated zucchini salad, steamed zucchini flower ($38) is another dish that has a povero theme, swordfish and zucchini. The presentation is anything but - a couple of thick-sliced pieces of swordfish, underneath diced peach and thinly sliced zucchini in a buttery sauce with more mirco-herbs, and on top a cheese and anchovy-filled zucchini flower. Like the entree, there's a lightness to the dish with delicate flavours. Again, it's a little too cool and I can't work out whether this is on purpose or due to the place being busy with a couple of big tables.
Our other main is lamb shoulder, quite a dense, brooding dish. The lamb is flavoursome, but not as giving and luscious as you might expect.
Despite the wait we had, Mezzalira still delivers well on the Italian experience, true to its heritage but with an eye for the finer end of Italian cuisine. And to the future, the plans are moving forward, a little boid tolds me, for renovations next year and a refocus on a simpler menu, more relaxed and where the talented chefs can throw caution to the wind. We're looking forward to this.
Address: Melbourne building, corner London Circuit and West Row, City
Phone: 6230 0025
Owners: Trimboli family
Chefs: Diego Arata and Pasquale Trimboli
Hours: Lunch Monday to Friday from noon, dinner Monday to Saturday from 6pm
Licensed: Yes, BYO wine only, corkage $15 a bottle
Vegetarian: Pasta, some entrees
To pay: All cards
Wheelchair access: Yes
Seats: 80 inside, plus a private room, 40 outside
Wine list: 4/4
Value for money: 2/4
Summary: Mezzalira has a firm place in the Canberra restaurant scene, still with beautiful seasonal Italian food and plenty of energy; we're looking forward to the promised refurb.
11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.