It seems like it is always busy at Belluci's. This Canberra institution has been a cornerstone at the Manuka shops for years and judging by the packed dining room, it's a neighbourhood favourite. With the weather starting to warm up for summer, Belluci's is in al fresco mode; full-length glass doors are pushed open and dining tables extend out on to the pavement.
It's cosy inside the restaurant; soft lighting and exposed brick make the space feel trendy. It's industrial chic in a minimalist sort of way and there's a homeliness about the dining room that's welcoming. Perhaps it's the long open kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven that runs along the back room.
There's a lot on the food menu - antipasti, pizza, pasta, risotto, secondi, sides, salads ... and that's not even including the specials. Part of the Belluci's appeal is, I guess, having something for everyone. And it certainly looks like the kitchen is playing to its audience. It's a diverse crowd tonight; there are business diners, families sitting down to a meal and plenty of couples - there must be something about the casual vibe at Belluci's that makes it easy for many different groups to relate to. The downside of this is while the dining room has a bit of a buzz, the closeness of the tables mean I can hear private conversations from tables around us.
The wine list is exactly what you'd expect for a restaurant of this genre. It's predictable and covers the usual terrain, with a mix of Italian and local wines offered by the glass, half bottle and whole bottles.
We opt to start with an Italian classic, zucchine al formaggi ($22). The zucchini flowers are filled with goat's cheese, lightly battered and deep-fried with a bit of lemon zest throughout that adds a welcome freshness. The flowers themselves are nicely battered, still crisp and light. Unfortunately, the generous amount of goat's cheese slightly overpowers the delicate flavour of the zucchini flowers. It's not unpalatable by any means but lacks that delicateness and balance that are so integral to a dish of this nature.
The entrée special, braised beef cheek and potato croquettes ($16), are surprisingly large, not quite the two-bite sized little entrees I was expecting. There are two almost-tennis ball sized pieces on a plate and while terrifically crisp on the outside, they taste more like mashed potato than anything else. The romesco aioli and pickled chilli help to cut through to a degree, but on the whole the dish is just a bit too large and much too dense, particularly for an entrée.
There's a significant gap before we get our mains, and while the mountain of little dumplings that arrives in the gnocchi al ragu ($30) is impressive in size, taste wise, it's disappointing. The gnocchi don't have a distinct potato flavour, there's not much braised veal and the sauce lacks seasoning. As a whole the dish is quite heavy, there are no greens to add freshness and it appears to be very much a matter of quantity over quality.
With so much to choose from, deciding on a main has proven too much choice is indeed a bad thing. In the end, I avoid the standard pizzas and pastas, and choose the fish of the day special - barramundi with celeriac puree and cannellini beans ($36). It's a more well thought out main than the previous one and shows a touch of the finesse that was lacking in the earlier dishes. The fish is well cooked, and accompaniments like pickled radish and salsa verde add crunch and freshness.
I always spends 10 minutes pondering my dessert options, and tonight I'm torn between the tiramisu, crème brulee (although perhaps a little out of place in an Italian restaurant) and the yoghurt panna cotta with peaches. My interest in the latter is short lived when the waitress tells me that the peaches are tinned rather than fresh, and we opt for the house made trio of gelato and sorbet ($15). It's hard to go wrong with the classics - raspberry, chocolate and pistachio - but in many ways the dessert sums up the meal. Three scoops of gelato arrive in the middle of a big white plate - the scoops aren't particularly neat, and no one's bothered with a garnish. The flavours of the gelato are muted and the texture slightly gummy. Having soldiered through sizeable entrees and mains, we don't even make it halfway through dessert.
Belluci's calls itself simple and rustic. It's hard to argue with that, I suppose, it's just that the food isn't particularly memorable. There's a sort of cheap and cheerful vibe about it, except that it isn't particularly cheap. While the portions may be generous, the prices reflect that - and its prime location. But if you're looking for a kid-friendly, pizza and pasta, something-for-all-everyone sort of dining experience, then perhaps this might be the place for you.
Address: Cnr Franklin and Furneaux Streets, Manuka
Phone: 6239 7424
Hours: Lunch, seven days, noon-2.30pm; dinner, seven days, from 5.30pm
Owners: Alex Czezowski, Vlada Makic and Andrew Olejniczak
Chef: Vlada Makic
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian: Quite a few options
Noise: Difficult to have a quiet conversation