Like the iconic building it's housed in, Mezzalira has good bones. The tall arched windows of the Melbourne building stretch dramatically from floor to ceiling and you can't help but notice the thick vault door at the back of the restaurant. The building used to house the first bank in Canberra I'm told, and the bank vault now holds dozens of bottles of wine.
That's a rather fitting use of a bank vault, I suppose. And when you've just taken out the title of Best Wine List in the ACT for 2019, possibly a necessity.
Unsurprisingly, it's an excellent wine list, one that doesn't try to be everything to everyone, instead focused on drawing a connection between Italy and Australia. There's also a good selection of Italian beers going beyond the standard Peroni and Birra Moretti, and a short but classic aperitif and cocktail list.
If you and your dining partner have similar wine tastes, Mezzalira offers wine by the carafe but there isn't a price break for 500ml, so we opt for the flexibility of by the glass. While I love to drink local, the Italian varietals are too tempting tonight and I can't resist a Piedmontese Barbera ($16).
While the wood-fired oven and open salumi station remind me of some of the best neighbourhood restaurants we've eaten at in Italy, there are some odd touches to the dining room. The two-seater sofa and armchair in the middle of the dining room, for instance. No one sits in them the entire time we're there, so it's a bit of a puzzle as to their purpose.
The traditional Italian menu has plenty of choice, depending on how hungry you are. We can't resist the house made focaccia ($8.50), which like all the best Italian food, is simple but oh so moreish. It's warm from the oven, chewy with crisp edges and finished with a healthy dose of rosemary, olive oil and sea salt. Whoever said that you shouldn't fill up on bread hasn't had Mezzalira's focaccia.
On the waitstaff's recommendation, we order the tortellini di Zucca ($24 in an entrée size), a Mezzalira speciality that's been refined over the past 20 years - so we're told. It's a classic Italian dish of pumpkin tortellini with the addition of buffalo ricotta and leek, finished in a sage burnt butter with a sprinkling of crushed amaretti biscuits. It's a little out of the ordinary to start a meal on a sweet note, but this dish is delicate and intriguing enough to hold its own.
Pork belly with baked apple, cavolo nero and chili ($25) is similarly brilliant. Pork and apple are not an uncommon pairing, but the earthiness of the greens and the subtle chilli kick bring Mezzalira's version of this combination to life. The pork belly is bubbly and crisp, and the vein of fat adds a richness that makes this this seemingly simple dish luxurious.
Unfortunately, the mains don't fare as well tonight. The wood-fired Berkshire suckling pig, Calabrian pepperonata and 'nduja ($41) is disappointing. The meat has an unpleasantly gamey flavour, the skin is rubbery and there's not much by way of accompaniments - just two half potatoes and roasted capsicum. I'm all for homestyle and rustic, but this dish just doesn't deliver on flavour. Surprisingly, for a restaurant of this calibre, the waitstaff don't comment on my half-uneaten meal or ask if everything is OK.
The Rangers Valley beef fillet is on the rare side of medium rare, a deep red in the middle, and the sides of potato and pancetta gratinata, spinach puree and horseradish ($41) are well executed but don't add much by way of interest. At this price point, I'm expecting something a little more memorable.
The side of green beans and almond "aglio e oglio" ($11) is similarly underwhelming. Produce seems to be the culprit here; the beans are tough and slightly under cooked, and it doesn't help that there are barely any almonds to speak of.
Service is inconsistent, depending on who stops by your table. What started off well tapers to a somewhat sloppy end over the course of the night, with different waiters bringing us mismatched cutlery. Dessert is unceremoniously plonked in the middle of the table, like a mood swing we don't know what we did to deserve. Fortunately, the flourless chocolate torte ($16) is a welcome end to the meal.
Perhaps it's an off night, but Mezzalira doesn't appear to be the Canberra stalwart it once was. It feels like it's gotten a little complacent; that's not to diminish what it is - polished versions of Italian classics. The entrees are faultless, and perhaps if we'd ordered pasta as mains, we'd have enjoyed the meal more. Unfortunately tonight, the mains don't quite deliver the finesse that I've come to expect of a Trimboli brothers' restaurant. It might have a bit of work to do to keep up with its chic and consistently excellent younger sister in Braddon, Italian and Sons.
Address: 55 London Circuit, Canberra
Phone: 6230 0025
Hours: Lunch, noon-2pm Monday to Friday; dinner, 6-10pm Monday to Saturday
Owner: Joe Trimboli
Chef: Pasquale Trimboli
Vegetarian: A few good options
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise: Easy enough for a quiet conversation