“We’ve had two couples that have had dates here and now they’re getting married,” says Michael Badr with more than a hint of pride. “They will either get married at Sarti, or have their engagement here, and then continue that tradition of coming here for their anniversary.”
Such is life when you run one of the most popular inner-city Italian eateries.
Sarti is at Russell Place, just off Little Collins Street. After a decade in business – and a slick refurbishment three years ago – it’s as intimate as its cellar-dwelling neighbour, Gin Palace. “I’d describe us as modern Italian,” Badr says. “We take a lot of traditional dishes and do our own modern take.
“Sarti is that cool little place where people can come in for a snack, sit at the bar and have dinner, or just pitch up at a quiet little table in the corner. There’s a lot of different ways to eat or drink at Sarti. And it’s fun food, designed to share.”
Which also means it’s designed for dates. “Absolutely,” Badr says, “It’s about leaving the entertaining to you and we’ll take care of the rest. You’re trying to impress your date and we’ll be trying to quietly impress you.”
So what makes a perfect date? Allow him to explain.
To book or not to book
While Badr recommends you call ahead, it’s not essential. Not booking means you can change the pace of the night, starting at the bar for a drink to set the mood while staff sort out a table for you. But if you’re after something special, it’s always a good idea to pick up the phone and ask, not just for any table, but at Sarti, a corner round table.
“That’s always a favourite for dates,” Badr says. “You’re away from everyone else. You’re in the action, but you’re also tucked away, so you can have a bit of both.”
There’s also the question of which night is best. If you’re after a popping atmosphere with plenty to look at, of course opt for the weekend, but if you’re confident you don’t need other people to create the right atmosphere, then a weeknight is the better bet. The staff has time to be more attentive, and there are fewer distractions. In other words: first-timers on the weekend, veterans on weeknights – that’s how Badr likes to shorthand it, anyway.
The location, and how to get there
Arrange to meet your date at the restaurant. A CBD destination is a no-brainer: it’s easy to get a tram or cab, and as Badr says, restaurants such as Sarti offer plenty of options if you feel like your night is going somewhere. “It’s a good place to start and there are plenty of other places to walk to from us.” Sarti is located right in the centre of the large CBD block bordered by Bourke, Collins, Russell and Swanston streets. Transport options are endless: no excuse to turn up late.
Even if you’ve booked, “Come in, sit at the bar and start there,” Badr says. “You get a feel for the place and make yourself known to the staff. It’s a warm, busy space.”
Badr says it’s a toss-up between a fritto misto – calamari, soft shell crab, school prawns, zucchini, chilli tartare – or a selection of salumi served with gnocchi fritti. “All sharing stuff, which is really nice,” he says. “It’s such an Italian way to commune, to get to know one another. You share food as you share stories.”
The main event
For a main meal Badr is all about keeping it simple. “You should share a squid-ink spaghetti with blue swimmer crab and some fresh tomato, a little bit of garlic, chilli and olive oil,” he says, laughing at the suggestion that it might get messy. “That’s all part of the Italian romance. Remember Lady and the Tramp?”
Dessert is theatre to Italians. Badr talks up some of chef Paolo Masciopinto’s more unique creations. “Perhaps a five-layer tiramisu,” he says. “Or you could share some homemade doughnuts with homemade ‘nutella’. Our desserts are particularly fun and great to enjoy together. I love the bavarese al caramello, with salted popcorn, blueberries and bronze fennel.”
And after after dinner?
If you’ve gone to enough effort, there may be no need to kick on, but making a night of it by kicking on is never a bad option. Just make sure not to hijack the mood you’ve established. The CBD is full of great small bars as intimate and romantic as Sarti, so finish your meal with an espresso and head out.
6 Russell Place, Melbourne
(03) 9639 7822
This article is presented by Peroni.