Television Producer & Photojournalist with a passion for sharing adventures in and around Melbourne, Australia. See my www.youtube.com/user/tmztvaustralia for other adventures. Subscribe to me so I can tell you of upcoming fab things not to miss.
Published June 4th 2018
Ciao Cielo (Hello Heaven) food meets its name in every way
Ciao Cielo with new Al Fresco Bocce inspired garden
Ciao Cielo (Italian for Hello Heaven) has after 8 successful years pulled up stumps and relocated to the stunning historic Port Melbourne Courthouse. They have recently put on an opening night extravaganza that was sublime. I was privileged to attend the grand opening with Maree Coote (local gold winning writer, photographer and graphics artist).
This courthouse, police station and blue stone three cell lock-up were built in the early 1860's on land set aside for a watchhouse. The two storey cream and red brick courthouse was designed by architect J.J. Clark, who worked at the Public Works Department. The courthouse was converted for use by the Anglican Church in 1991 and then evolved again and has since hosted several restaurants.
New owners, Kate Dickins and Chef Bryan Nelson, have spent an astonishing amount of money to refurbish this property to a 5-star facility with a delightful atmosphere. They have retained the soaring ceilings of Port Melbourne Courthouse.
Refurbished Port Melbourne Courthouse is a delightful venue
The expensive but very tasteful refurb includes a great fave of Maree's, which are padded banquette seating, along with intimate wood tables and chairs. This makes for a comfy, cosy evening in a Melbourne winter. For me, it has that old world Italian castle feel with the roaring fire creating a basking glow across the space and with a modern twist of chandeliers and marble surfaces. They have retained the outside courtyard to create, as they say, "a green Bocce inspired lawn for al fresco garden dining". Kate's vision behind the restaurant was to create a space "her Nonna from Vicenza would be proud to dine in". Well, Nonna be very, very proud. It is delectable.
Chef Bryan started his apprenticeship at 17 with the River seafood restaurant in Southgate, then went to Walters Wine Bar to finish his apprenticeship working with renowned Chef Ryan Cleft (tippling club Singapore). Following that, he worked with Paul Reynor at the Stokehouse upstairs for the period they had 2 hats. He did a brief stint at St Andrews in Brighton before heading down to Aireys Inlet and taking the helm as Head Chef for Pam and Kosta at A la Greque where he spent 3 years before extensively travelling Europe with Kate on a gastronomic tour for 18 months. This tour and Kate's Nonna inspired them to open Ciao Cielo eight years ago.
The restaurant has been running as a fabulous success, so fabulous they needed more space, thus the move to this new venue. On the grand opening night, the al fresco garden was a fairy world with live entertainment, secret ingredient spritzers in bright orange hues, and real Italian pizza that was "magnifico".
For me, I tasted some of the most authentic Italian pizzas I have had in Melbourne, especially the truffle mushroom. Maree said, "Most delicious pizza ever eaten. A Margherita sauce so full of flavour and nuance - I couldn't get enough of this. Is it the wood-fire? Is it the secret recipe? Who cares. More please."
Many people enjoyed entering the social media game to guess what the ingredients were in those fiery orange spritzers. I thought I tasted a touch of cayenne pepper or Worchester sauce, but I won't spoil it and I will let you guess when you try one. But these tasty treats were just the teasers as we were then ushered into the main Courthouse, in all its ethereal glory, to partake of, no less, than a four-course meal.
It started with three offerings of Antipasti, two entrees, four secondi, and three dolci including Nonna's Tiramisu. Maree and I split the tasting so we had room for all the delicacies. This was "autentico" Italian cuisine that I have not tasted since traveling in Italy. It was as close to remembering the joy of Italy, through its food, that I have experienced since then.
I adore Australian wines but I thoroughly enjoyed the Italian red wine which complemented the menu superbly. They have over 200 wines on the menu but we were served the Hacker Sangiovese. This wine comes from the hills of Greve in Chianti of Tuscany, Italy. It is a deep lush ruby red wine with a lovely floral nose, coating the glass nicely and had a bold and structured finish and completed the Bistecca alla Folorentina (Little Joes Grass Fed T-Bone) perfectly. This generous 1 kg of steak was cooked to perfection at medium rare with smoky overtones and tantalising spices and presented masterfully, cut up on a board, for all the share.
Antipastas of duck and fritti were the perfect start
But I have skipped the amazing antipasti which consisted of Wagyu bresaola, artichoke, endive, horseradish and gnocchi fritti which light and delicate with lovely flavour and a confit spiced duck suppll. There were also tasty mozzarella and other cheese treats presented impeccably on a wooden board to share. And all were divine, delicate morsels to the palate. The perfect starters.
The entree was a seafood extravaganza with a Whole Rainbow Trout with pancetta, thyme, lemon, and olive oil cooked, with its head of course, wrapped and sealed with all those delightful juices. It fell off the bone and melted away in your mouth. Needless to say, we stripped the bones.
Maree also chose the risotto and thought, "Its knockout presentation gave the Spencer Gulf King Prawn risotto a very modern look". Served as a shallow bed of risotto (dinner-plate depth only), it featured three sculptural prawns as a substantial garnish. The risotto itself was both light and rich, thanks to the bisque broth underscore that gave its depth of flavour. A marjoram gremolata added an ideal herb lift and contrast.
And the best was yet to come which included the T-Bone Steak. Maree loves goat and she said, "The standout favourite for me was the Sardinian-style goat leg. Sensational flavour packaged up in a home style presentation. Warm, deep flavours of wild olives, fennel, lemon and chilli, assisted that goat as it slowly fell apart in that slowcooked surrender. Partnered with melt-in-the-mouth polenta dumplings and the surprise crunch of a pangrattato, the dish was both complex and simple".
Personally, I could not agree more about the Polenta Dumplings. They were so light and fluffy they were a delicacy that floated away on your tongue. These mains were complemented by the lightly Wood Roasted Sage Mushrooms delicately set on goats curd and puffed wild rice. This was a standout side for me with the subtle earthy combinations complementing the melting morsels of steak. A tiny bit more goats curd would have made these mushrooms "favoloso" as the flavours were so delightfully entwined.
Maree said, "I love veggies, and the Fagolini green beans were lightly braised in garlic and tomato, Italian-style. More of that homestyle trattoria fare that warms heart and hearth. Simple, perfect, delicious." These three simple words, I believe, says it all.
I had one friend, from ages ago, who always looked at the dessert menu first to plan her meal with Dolci as the "finale". She wanted to be able to fit in dessert. I never quite understood this until this evening's "ultima festa" of dolci. We were lavished with Ricotta Filled Cannoli filled with a lush mixture of fennel almond crumb, blood orange sorbetto, chocolate snow, and candied almond and an "Ameretto Bomb". Everyone knows Italian gelato is the best in the world. For Italians, it is an art of love. Chef Bryan's gelato bomb was one step up again with astonishing amaretto overtones. Its orange centre was encased in fluffy Italian Meringue browned to perfection with citrus and ameretti. For me, one word says it. Heavenly.
I know now why this restaurant is called "Hello Heaven". Chef Bryan then topped the night with two enormous serves of his Nonna's Tiramisu (Nonna's secret recipe I believe) with its luscious hint of orange. Cointreau? Grand Mariner? No matter it's secret, it was rich, lush, with a tiny tang and tingle, this was a cloud of Heaven.
It was a delightful night, in a wonderfully renovated venue, with outstanding food. And the service was absolutely spot on, smooth, seamless, generous and gracious.
One final note, in the restaurant world, it must be very hard to cater for everyone's growing allergies. And some people find it very daunting to go out and find only one item on the menu they can eat and it is not very appealing to their taste buds. So they stop going out.
These innovative chefs take it in their stride as they cater for food allergies with delightful subtle flavoured and wholesome delicacies such as Tuna Caprese with Australian Yellow fin tuna raw, passata, blanched heirloom cherry tomatoes, house made goats curd, lightly pickled cucumber, baby micro basil, volcanic salt and white balsamic and olive oil dressing. So if you have such an allergy, seek this place out and experience fine dining at its best, without any fear of reactions.
Yes, Nonna you should be very very proud. I would give Ciao Cielo this three forks or three stars. I will be back with friends and family very soon to visit this "eccellente" place and experience the lovely night lights of Port Melbourne. I just hope I do not have to book too far ahead to get a table. I have a feeling Ciao Cielo is going to be very full of delighted guests for the distant future.