Beaufort fans might be disappointed. Structurally, the bones of Dave Kerr’s gloriously dive-y, nautical-themed drinking den remain, but that’s about it. In its place, Capitano has emerged, and – as a former Beaufort regular it’s difficult to say this – the space is almost unrecognisable. But it’s still very impressive.
Banjo Harris Plane, Casey Wall, Manu Potoi and Michael Bascetta (who between them own Bar Liberty, Rockwell and Sons and Above Board), have revamped the old pub with the help of architect Chris James and designer Stewart Cowlishaw.
“I never really saw the beauty in it, because it was so dark and dingy,” says former Attica sommelier Harris Plane. “It was a great spot to have a drink and have fun, but the bare bones of the building are really excellent, the floor is so stunning.”
Though they may have gone unnoticed before, those beautiful terrazzo floors remain – almost everything else has been transformed. The anchors and fake tiki roof are gone. It’s early days, and only half the dining room is open (the remainder will be revealed later this year), but that half is now clearly Italian at heart.
“I’m not saying it was dirty dirty, but it was a dive bar,” says Harris Plane. “When we took all the paneling and all the black stuff off the windows, we saw it was really quite lovely.”
The maroon and ivory interior is intimate and relatively unadorned. Art Deco light fixtures effuse a moody glow over wooden tables (some white-clothed, some not), bentwood chairs and banquette seating. ’70s and ’80s Italian disco comes courtesy of Sam Rogers, who spent time in Berlin as a music producer and now heads up front of house.
Where once punters lined up for picklebacks and pots of Carlton, now there’s a neat selection of amari. Wine – as at Bar Liberty – is a big deal. Liberty’s list is 500-strong, but Capitano’s is tighter, including a few producers who “don't muck around too much” with their wines.
“There’s a bit of a thread of New York Italian, or North American Italian running through the menu, so there are a couple American beers, American sparkling wines, a few little references to that,” says Harris Plane.
Around 95 per cent of the wines though are made in Italy, or from Italian grapes. Whites have texture, weight and savouriness; reds are light with loads of acidity and bright fruit flavours to go with tomato-based sauces.
“[Diners] just want to order a bunch of food, and order some wine, and it's gonna work well together,” he says. “For me I guess, fuck all food and wine matching. You might not understand why it works well together, but you know that what you're eating and drinking tastes really good.”
Onto cocktails. Where Bar Liberty is all about ease of service (most are pre-batched, but more technical), the list here revives the theatre of shaking and stirring. It reads classically (limoncello spritz, grapefruit Americano). Bitter and sour reigns, with regular hits of chamomile, saffron, orange and amaro. The grapefruit granita with Campari float doubles as a dessert.
Wall developed the menu after research trips to his home in the US. Together with head chef Blake Giblet (Movida, Cumulus Inc., Rockwell and Sons), he’s executing an unfussy and approachable Italian-American menu.
Shaved prosciutto (made in Ballarat) and pork neck gabagool (cured ham) come with house-made sourdough and spicy pickled fennel. Next, cheese pizza with pecorino, fresh and aged mozzarella. The slightly sour, fermented base has a good char, and at the pointy end what Wall calls "the New York flop"; a little droop.
“A lot of the pizzas in Melbourne are Napoli-style, I'm looking to do something a bit different,” says Wall. “[Napoli-style pizzas are] a lot soupier and wet in the middle. I think if you hold the slice it should kind of stay.”
A dish of clam chitarra (guitar string) pasta arrives with a few in the shell “so you know where they came from”, and a generous handful loose. The sauce is clam broth and dashi, reduced, finished with butter, parsley and lemon.
It’s restrained, clever cooking that doesn’t need to be analysed or explained.
“I like simple things, minimal ingredients,” Wall says. “There’s a lot of work going into these dishes that look seemingly simple.”
Salads are bright and acidic; young kale and wild greens are coated in an anchovy-spiked dressing, blanketed in parmesan. Sliced apple, fresh fennel and aged ricotta works well with beef, pork and fennel meatballs. To share, there’s lasagne, veal parmigiana and dry-aged steaks.
“We're always gonna have a badass steak to share,” says Wall. “Eating has been a communal activity for thousands of years, until recently – now it’s like everyone goes out and looks at their phone.”
And the name: Capitano. “Sadly there's not an amazing story behind it,” Harris Plane says. “We wanted to reference a little the building and its past. It had a nautical theme, and it’s a slight reference to that. We also wanted it to be Italian sounding without being overtly ‘buongiorno’ or ‘al fresco’.”
The service is unpretentious and knowledgeable, and Wall says it’s important that families with kids get a warm reception.
“That’s a conversation we're having a lot. Trying to make everyone feel welcome and what we're serving, what glasses we’re using, what silverware, we don't want to make it too fancy because it's not the place we are,” Wall says.
“I feel like maybe those people who would be upset [the Beaufort is gone] might have kids now, so maybe they would need a place to come for pizza.”
421 Rathdowne Street, Carlton
Mon to Fri 5.30pm–late
Sat & Sun 12pm–late
This article was updated on October 18, 2018. It first appeared on Broadsheet on August 14, 2018. menu items may have changed since publication.