You can hear the buzz of Umberto Espresso Bar from a few doors down. Diners lean in close across street-side and indoor tables to hear each other’s quips, and you’ll likely be greeted with a cheery “Hello, darling!” from venue manager Alessandra Di Martino.
After more than a decade on High Street in Thornbury, the much-loved neighbourhood spot has moved into a 100-year-old former shoe store just 100 metres up the road. “We are starting again, almost,” says owner Marco Finanzio, “but with the benefit of established customer connections and track record. And we no longer have the anxiety of a customer walking into a small place and us not knowing where to seat them”.
The new, three-level Umberto has space for 200, compared to its predecessor’s 40. But, spread across several rooms and nooks, you don’t really feel it. There’s an undeniable familiarity to the front room, with the same number of seats and very similar decor to the original. “It was a blank canvas, but we didn’t want to go overboard,” says Finanzio. “We just replicated and refined the original.” A wall of copper and ceramic plates decorate the back room on one side, and the history of Umberto’s is told through framed media cuttings on the other. There’s also a soon-to-open courtyard out back.
Moving to the first floor, there are two private dining rooms. One has a terrazzo-tiled balcony and an old-timey Edwardian fireplace; the other, completely covered in dark wood panelling and launching in early April, is intended as a members-only-style space for up to 12 people (there’s a drinks cart so you can be left to your own devices). Up the final flight of stairs is a rooftop bar, which will open this summer with views across Thornbury and Coburg towards Mount Macedon.
Another advantage of Umberto 2.0 is it can now take bookings for more than six.
The menu, as always, is made of approachable Italian dishes. “It’s basically a pasta bar with seasonal specials,” says Finanzio. You might find charry octopus chalked up on the blackboard, or a simple stracciatella and asparagus dish, or lightly fried ricotta-stuffed zucchini flowers. And there are always panini specials at lunchtime.
Then there are the perennial favourites, which have been transported over to the new spot. That includes the cotoletta alla Milanese (veal schnitzel, now a permanent menu item); orecchiette with broccoli and anchovies; and that casarecce with five-hour ragu di vitello (veal ragu). “I think there is an absolute beauty in replicating that ragu over and over,” says Finanzio.
Wines are mostly Italian varietals – both from Italy and Australia – and entire shelves are dedicated to lesser-known amari and grappa, which the staff will happily walk you through “to show you they are not all moonshine”, Finanzio jokes. Cocktail-wise, choose from an Aperol, Campari or Montenegro Spritz; a Negroni; or an Espresso Martini.
A small breakfast menu is also available (think baked-ricotta scrambled eggs with prosciutto, and “broken” eggs on pan-fried capsicum with cheesy potato rosti), and coffee comes from Coburg’s Genovese, as it has since day one.
Umberto Espresso Bar
917 High Street, Thornbury
(03) 9484 8654
Wed to Sat 8am–9pm