Surry Hills is the antipodean culinary counterpart to New York’s Fifth Avenue. Just replace designer labels with swanky restaurants dishing out cuisines from India to Japan. It’s the place everyone wants to be when the hunger kicks in, whether you’re a local or just visiting. And just like Fifth Avenue, it doesn’t matter how much it sucks out of your wallet, you’ll always come back.
For restaurateurs, it’s the golden ticket. Opening a restaurant on the coveted Crown Street is a dream only a handful will reach. So, imagine having a restaurant open for close to a decade on the dining high street.
Ibby Moubadder, Co-Founder of Esca Group, who also owns a handful of other restaurants in the area, first opened Cuckoo Callay in 2013, where it quickly became the go-to friendly neighbourhood cafe. Then, in May 2023, it shut its doors forever. Since then, the popular corner spot has remained empty. Until now.
“Having Cuckoo Callay was amazing. It became something we never imagined, and I’ll miss seeing people walking around with our pink coffee lids, but we felt it was the right time to reinvigorate this iconic corner,” said Moubadder.
Stepping into the former two-level Cuckoo Callay corner building is Itō, your friendly Japanese Izakaya with a twist. The twist we refer to is Italian.
The love Australia has for Japan and Europe is evident every southern hemisphere winter season. The cities are drained of locals who seek a classic Euro summer or chase fresh powder on Japan’s iconic slopes. Marrying these two cuisines is genius. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?
Ito’s Italian-born head chef, Erik Ortolani, is the brains behind the menu. Although, just don’t mention the F-word (fusion) to him. Instead, Ortolani explains it’s not a fusion but rather an injection of his heritage into a cuisine he fell in love with and moved to Australia for.
Ortolani’s repertoire spans Italian-fine dining restaurants in Milan to Cho Cho San in Potts Point.
“Whilst my heritage is Italian, my passion is Japanese cooking,” said Ortolani. “It
feels natural to me to use a combination of the two as a vehicle for creating a really unique menu that is still very signature Japanese and that’s exactly what we’ve done with Itō.”
Suppose you’re curious about the name. The izakaya is named after Ito Mancio, the Japanese Jesuit who travelled to Rome on a diplomatic mission in the 1580s.
In Kanji, izakaya translates to ‘stay-drink-place’, which Itō mirrors to a tee. There are almost no remnants of Cuckoo Callay, thanks to Australian architect Matt Darwon, who brings a minimalist eye to the space and fills it with bespoke Tasmanian blackwood furniture, leather furnishings, and Japan-black stained floorboards. A splattering of bold colours here and there keeps it modern and informal.
Another aspect of izakaya is the drinks menu. Just like in Japan, Itō serves as an after-work bar where you can sip sake and enjoy snacks. The cocktail list is a tapestry of Japanese-inspired concoctions, including the usual suspects — lychee and yuzu — thrown into the mix. If sake is calling you, they have it in abundance, including a few local drops from Melbourne. There’s also a wine list that crawls from Italy to Australia.
Food-wise, it’s a feast for the tastebuds. The snacks are the heroes and attention to detail is everything. A simple bowl of edamame — which, as we all know, is a staple — is grilled and peppered in nori and chilli salt, as opposed to boiled. It makes all the difference.
For something moreish, the Yellowfin tuna piled on a crispy bonito bread cracker, topped with bottarga (salted, cured fish roe pouch) will have you begging your dining companion for a bite of theirs. The shio kombu bread served with a cornelle of cultured butter is also top of the list. Shio kombu is kelp simmered in soy sauce and other ingredients, which makes the bread sweet, salty, and unmissable.
Even though snacks and drinks are the mainstay of izakaya, a range of larger share plates allows drinkers and diners to have the option to have a more well-rounded dinner. The HIbachi wagyu is lightly smoked, but it’s the garlic butter, shoyu jus, and thick paste of black garlic that enhances the meat’s flavour. There’s also a market fish katsu, braised duck dumplings bathed in a tangy sweet ponzu sauce, and Aglio e olio spaghetti with garlic shoots and togarashi.
Itō knew it had big shoes to fill, and from what we can see, it’s a perfect fit.