Food Review: Il Fornaio

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After a brief hiatus in January, MF is back after a well-deserved Christmas break, which of course involved many new restaurants and cafes to tantalise and titillate you with…

Summer holidays, and summer in general for St Kilda, means beach days, boozy afternoons and long brunches and lunches, and one of my emerging favourite St Kilda haunts over the summer has been Il Fornaio, at the bottom (or top depending on your perspective) of Acland street near the corner of Fitzroy street. Sandwiched between Chinta Ria and an Aesop store, Il Fornaio is unassuming from the outside with a small amount of outdoor cafe tables on a raised level.

Inside is a cavernous space with ample seating, a large coffee station, patisserie section and bakery to the back. It has a subdued polished concrete finish which can be a little dark – especially on a hot summer day – so try to snare one of those outside tables.

It is one of my pet hates at any dining establishment to be left standing in the doorway with wait staff rushing around not paying you any attention – so I am happy to say that in the many times visiting Il Fornaio this has never happened. We are always greeted within seconds of arriving and, due to the size of the establishment, almost invariably get a table straight away.

The wait team are all friendly and attentive (some will even play a game of volleyball with you for a small fee – see their menu for details) and always get down to the important business of coffee orders post-haste. Their coffee is sublime – sourced from those coffee doyens of South Melbourne, St Ali, it is reliably excellent and partnered with Fanela dried cane sugar. It is well within the top five coffees I have sampled in Melbourne – I will let you in on the other four one day… If you’re lucky.

The menu is exciting with some original ideas for both brunch and lunch. There is also a playful feel to it with the Optimus Prime burger, the ‘My Spanish Sweetheart’ fritters and the Ace Ventura juice (all of which I can recommend). On this occasion I ordered the heirloom tomatoes with avocado, ricotta and basil on olive toast with a poached egg and my betrothed had an interesting dish of spinach with avocado, salted ricotta and shallots on multigrain.

Perhaps the only negative I can mention is in relation to the occasional patchiness of the food service. Although on this occasion it was very quick, there can sometimes be long waits for food, particularly on the weekends.

It is not often that dining reviews mention crockery, however at Il Fornaio it is definitely worth talking about. Without wanting to get too ‘Donna Hay’ with you, my dish was served on a crisp white plate with red stripes that really complemented the bright red tomatoes. The other meal was equally well presented with thinly sliced avocado on the multigrain set against an aqua striped plate to great effect.

Heirloom Tomatoes with avocado, ricotta and basil on olive bread with poached egg

This attention to detail then extended to the food itself. The heirloom tomatoes were scattered in red and yellow hues with chunks of fresh green avocado and bright white ricotta all drizzled with basil pesto. The olive bread is an odd combination with this fresh vibrant dish but it marries well with the saltiness of the olives counterbalancing the acidity of the tomato. The spinach, avocado and salted ricotta dish though is the real winner and a unique one in the world of hotcakes, benedicts and myriad fruit toasts in abundant supply all over Melbourne. Shallots are an ingredient not used in many brunch dishes but work spectacularly well with the salty cheese and smooth nutty avocado. Do also try the juices also which are freshly squeezed with great flavour combinations.

Prices are towards the upper end of what you would expect to pay for brunch – around $50 a couple. You are however, getting great quality for both coffee and food ingredients and combinations.

One thing that doesn’t help with the final bill is that next to the counter are delectable cakes and pastries and more often than not you will find a lemon meringue on your bill unless you continue to stare straight ahead and avoid eye contact.

With summer fast approaching autumn make sure you give Il Fornaio a try, secure that outdoor table and bring a change of clothes for volleyball.

Il Fornaio is located at 2 Acland Street, St Kilda and is open until 5pm every day of the week.

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