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Monday, April 27, 2009

Grotta Capri, Kensington, Sydney

EDIT: Grotta Capri has now closed.

If you've been watching the second series of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, you cannot have missed noticing the scenes featuring Robert "Aussie Bob" Trimbole in his favourite restaurant Grotta Capri.

I'd first noticed this restaurant when we'd dined at Sushi Tengoku, only a few doors up the road, but for many older Sydneysiders, it's one filled with memories having been a fixture on the dining scene for over 50 years.

The Grotta Capri exterior

Built in 1955, the restaurant is modelled on the famous La Grotto Azzurra, or Blue Grotto, on the island of Capri. In Italy, this sixty-metre long cavern is a huge tourist attraction, with an entrance so small that visitors must lie down flat in the narrow boats before straightening to admire the spectacular reflective blue waters inside.

In Australia, the Grotta Capri attracts visitors with an oyster shell-encrusted exterior that gives way to a twisting cave-like dining room, an underwater-style extravaganza that is resplendent with backlit aquariums, painted water scenes, stalactites festooned with fairy lights and giant clams, seahorses and yabbies overhead. Coloured lights cast an errie blue tinge and throughout the evening we're entertained by an eclectic soundtrack that includes Funkytown, YMCA, the Zorba, It's Raining Men and the theme from The Godfather.

Painted murals

It was here that Muriel noisily slurped the last of her Orgasm cocktail in Muriel's Wedding, in the scene where her so-called friends tell her they've secretly organised a trip to Hibiscus Island and that Muriel is embarrassing them and "needs to find friends on her own level". The restaurant has also played host to scenes from the movies Son of the Mask and The Night We Called It a Day as well as the television series Wildside and White Collar Blue.

It's hard not to be entranced by the over-the-top decor. I spend the first ten minutes quietly marvelling, exploring the cavernous nooks and crannies and examining the paraphernalia of alleged sea life encrusted into the ceiling.

The bar aquarium

I've managed to rustle together a large group of eleven to dinner tonight, two of whom subsequently remember coming here as children. There are a few nods to the mafia theme with dishes including the barramundi "Trimbole" (grilled barramundi slices rolled in radicchio leaves with bread crumbs, cheese and onion), the "Mobster" lobster mornay, the "Mob" seafood platter and the salmone "Al Capone" with capers and olives (ordered and pictured further down).

Garlic bread $3.50 per serve

We share appetisers of crusty garlic bread and bruschetta whilst we wait for everyone to arrive.

Traditional bruschetta $7 per serve


Cold seafood plate $19
Prawns, oysters and salmon with lemon and cocktail sauce

Antipasto $17
Selection of grilled vegetables, cured meats and cheese

Gamberi all'aglio $19
Sizzling prawns with garlic, chilli, tomato and white wine

Fegatini all Veneziana $26 (blackboard special)
Chicken liver with onion, nutmeg and white wine

I order the blackboard fegatini all Veneziana to share as an entree. The chicken livers are delicious, seared to a perfect just-cooked moistness. The generous serving means it's quite a rich dish, ideal for sharing but a bit heavy if consumed solely as a main, a point M regretfully discovers later when mains are served.


Cannelloni ricotta $22
Homemade cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach in tomato sauce

Risotto mare monti $24
Mixed seafood with seasoned vegetables in tomato and white wine

I'm often wary of restaurant risottos which are usually too soggy for my liking. The risotto mare monti is a surprise revelation, the grains still slightly al-dente, with a sauce that is hearty with the flavour of fish stock and seafood.

John Dory $34
Fillet with lemon butter white wine sauce

Complimentary vegetables for the table
Carrots, potato and broccoli

Rack of lamb $36 (blackboard special)
Grilled with artichokes, olives, wine wine and lemon juice

I've gone for halves in the rack of lamb which is a tad disappointing, the lamb lacking in crisp burnished skin and overall a touch over-seasoned with the already salty olives and artichokes.

Gnocchi al gorgonzola $23
Homemade potato pasta
with pine nuts, gorgonzola, parmesan cheese, white wine and cream

Spaghetti gamberetti $24
Sauted prawns, cherry tomatoes, chilli, garlic and napoli sauce

Scallopine parmigiana $25
Veal topped with eggplant, mozzarella and tomato

Salmone "al Capone" $27
Fresh salmon grilled fillet
with garlic, capers, shallots, olives, tomato and white wine

Spaghetti in nero $23 (blackboard special)
Spaghetti with fresh cuttlefish in chilli and black ink

I'm much more pleased with my other shared main, the spaghetti in nero. A fan of cuttlefish ink, I revel in its decadence and arresting hue. It's difficult to describe the flavour, but to me it tastes like a buttery version of the sea, a little briney and perhaps similar to the flavour of cooked crab organs (the bits you find under the main shell) and I mean that in a good way.

The restaurant isn't terribly busy on a Thursday night, although our waitress Antonella assures us that Fridays and Saturdays are strictly bookings only, the restaurant recently experiencing a surge of interest thanks to its continual apperance in scenes on Underbelly. With only a few tables left, we're all treated to complimentary glasses of limoncello, the lemon liqueur from the south of Italy that is seriously alcoholic.


Creme brulee $10

I find the creme brulee a little overcooked, the custard almost solid in texture beneath the thick veneer of caramelised toffee, but the strawberries with Grand Marnier is a generous serve and heavy with the alcohol.

Strawberries with Grand Marnier and icecream $15

Antonella, we soon disover, is the daughter of restaurant owner Robert, and as the restaurant empties, they both happily come to our table for a relaxed and friendly chat. Robert, who hails from Sicily, bought the abandoned restaurant two-and-a-half years ago, keen to restore this dusty icon to its former glory.

A hodgepodge of do-it-yourself decoration and plumbing, the restaurant is slowly aging. The fountains which used to cascade down the walls and over the bar stopped working a year ago, we're told, and whilst they are trying to re-instal them, finding a plumber who can work out how to get past the ornate panelling has been difficult. The floor fountains still work though, and at this point we all look down at our feet. The floor is marked with thick panes of perspex over channels that apparently gush with running water when turned on, an effect that is reserved for Friday and Saturday nights.

The rough textured ceilings and interior are also a pain. Every two weeks they get up on chairs and steam clean the ceiling, focussing on a different section each time in a scenario much like the Harbour Bridge: by the time they've finished the entire thing it's time to start cleaning at the beginning again.

An autographed photo of Roy Billing as Robert "Aussie Bob" Trimbole
in the Channel 9 series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities

The use of the restaurant for scenes in Underbelly came about when the crew, who were shooting scenes at Randwick racecourse, scouted the local area and happened upon Grotta Capri. Filming took place on Mondays when the restaurant was closed, and whilst staff didn't get to play extras in any scenes, Antonella is visibly excited as she describes being on-set during filming: "I was around the corner in the scene where Bob is talking on the green telephone at the bar... it was so amazing but you have to be so quiet!"

She also gushes about Roy Billing, the actor who plays Robert Trimbole. "You would think he's stuck up but he's such a nice guy and he came in on his day off to give us this autographed photo!"

The photo takes pride of place in a perspex frame on the bar counter.

Grotta Capri.
Absolute kitsch. And gloriously so.

Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities continues on Channel 9 at 8.30pm tonight, conveniently airing after the launch episode of Masterchef Australia on Channel 10 at 7.30pm.

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Grotta Capri Italian & Seafood on Urbanspoon

Grotta Capri Italian and Seafood Restaurant
EDIT: Grotta Capri has now closed.
97-101 Anzac Parade
Kensington, NSW 2033
61 2 9662 7111

Open Tuesday to Sunday from 5.30pm
Closed on Mondays

BYO Sunday to Thursday only
Live music and karaoke from 10.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Kensington - Sushi Tengoku (Japanese)
Kingsford - Ayam Goreng 99 (Indonesian)
18 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 4/27/2009 12:08:00 am


  • At 4/27/2009 12:46 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    I walked past the restaurant every time I go to Peter's but never thought of trying :P

  • At 4/27/2009 2:19 am, Anonymous Grace said…

    ahh you managed to describe black ink spaghetti! everytime I tell people about the poporo black spaghetti and they ask 'so what does it taste like', I have noo idea what to say

    I am going to memorise that description >D

  • At 4/27/2009 8:34 am, Anonymous billy@ATFT said…

    Absolutely my kind of restaurant. :) Kitsch is good....

  • At 4/27/2009 10:12 am, Blogger Eileen Chong said…

    As a local I used to baulk at the exterior of the Grotta Capri -- whoever thought that masses of used oyster shells encrusted on the wall would be attractive?

    My mother-in-law remembers when her husband used to take her out on flash dates at the Grotta in the 50s and 60s. My husband and I ventured there one night when we were hungry and lazy to go too far and were pleasantly surprised. It was quiet on a Wednesday night but there were at least four other tables.

    The spaghetti al vongole was quite delightful, second actually to a plate I had at Hosteria del Pesce in Rome. That was quite gobsmacking. My husband had the risotto and he too was pleasantly surprised that it was al dente and had lots of flavour. Perhaps when you enter with no expectations this is what happens?

    I don't watch TV though so I can now understand why there was so many young uns who looked a bit tough at the other tables. Haha!

  • At 4/27/2009 10:16 am, Anonymous jane doe said…

    Thanks for the review - since Underbelly started, I've been toying with the idea of going along, if only to marvel at the interior decorations! Can anybody tell me for sure - was Bob Trimbole really the owner of Grotta Capri, or is it a fictionalised bit of the story?

  • At 4/27/2009 10:35 am, Anonymous Steph said…

    Ooh I used to go past this restaurant everyday and wonder what it was like..and now that you mention it, I totally recognise it from Muriel's wedding! That's kind of awesome. How random that they have karaoke too.

  • At 4/27/2009 11:09 am, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    wow, i never knew this place was still kicking. i remember visiting it many years ago.

  • At 4/27/2009 11:19 am, Blogger Implosion said…

    Looks like a place that my parents and in laws would love next time they're in town.

    I wish this place was baby friendly, too- that limits our dining experiences somewhat these days LOL...

  • At 4/27/2009 12:31 pm, Anonymous Arwen from Hoglet K said…

    What amazing decor! It's funny that it's been put together so strangely that it's hard to repair.

  • At 4/27/2009 7:30 pm, Anonymous Pete said…

    Those chicken livers look great! A much under appreciated dish in my book. I think liver tends to have a bad reputation because if it's not cooked perfectly then it's ruined as opposed to just 'bad'. Shame.

    I've read about this place a few times now. Will have to give it a go at some point.

  • At 4/27/2009 11:50 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I really like the blow glows from the fish tanks ooohhhhh and the cute names of the dishes hee hee. Yay for cuttlefish ink but the sauce needs to a bit thicker from the looks of it

  • At 4/28/2009 6:42 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jane Doe - Trimbole's supposed ownership of the place is entirely fictitious. He was a regular there, that much was true. I organised a 50th for a galpal there a few years back, and the then owners wouldn't let us have a male stripper for the birthday gal 'cause they're a 'family restaurant'. Hmm, la famiglia mafiosa, perhaps?

  • At 4/28/2009 8:41 pm, Anonymous divemummy said…

    I really enjoyed those chicken livers - it was a great night out. I reckon when the kids would love it - once they are old enough to be trusted not to sustain oyster shell cuts!

  • At 4/29/2009 1:28 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Joyce T - lol. Really - I was fascinated with it as soon as I spotted the decor!

    Hi Grace - Glad to be of service. That description just popped into my head so I'm glad it rings true for you too :) Haven't tried the black spaghetti at Poporo (nor Poporo itself) so thanks for the reminder.

    Hi Billy - lol. Yep I can just picture you cranking out Gloria Gaynor at karaoke on a Fri night!

    Hi E(ileen) - True, low expectations mean they can easily be eclipsed :) Great to hear your husband's risotto was good too. Apparently they are settling in a new chef so hopefully the quality continues.

    Hi Jane Doe - I did try searching on Google re: Robert Trimbole eating at Grotta Capri but couldn't find confirmation. Looks like Gobsmack'd below has your answer though :)

    Hi Steph - Ha, I love Muriel's Wedding. I should watch it again, and I can picture it being the perfect venue for Fri karaoke. Hard not to get into the spirit of things with such whismical decor.

    Hi Simon Food Favourites - Ahh you'll have to go back again and see if it's the same as your remembered!

    Hi Implosion - You could check with them re: babies. I would suggest avoiding Fri & Sat nites, but presume that other nights of the week would be okay? Give them a call.

    Hi Arwen - I am guessing it was all DIY so it may not have been organised as well as it could have. Quite a feat, and I don't think there's a restaurant in Sydney that comes close to it in terms of personality!

    Hi Pete - Ahh yes I love my livers. My mum does a great version with onions.

    Would be keen to hear your take on it too :)

    Hi FFichiban - The cuttlefish spaghetti was great. I don't think it needed to be thicker - you need a certain amount of runniness to coat the pasta without it being too overly rich :)

    Hi Gobsmack'd - Ahh thanks for the clarification, and lol @ stripper. I suppose most places only allow them in private dining rooms!

    Hi divemummy - I think they'd be okay in a year or two, and glad you enjoyed it. And you call me a cynic! :)

  • At 4/29/2009 3:35 am, Anonymous Yas said…

    I too noticed this place when I first tried Sushi Tengoku a few years back. It's hard to miss when you walk down that street LOL

  • At 4/30/2009 12:12 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Yas - You should go. Maybe we should organise a night out with Billy :)

  • At 4/30/2009 1:51 pm, Anonymous noodleboy said…

    I remember going here a few years ago. Pretty hard to forget, the decor is hysterical!

    As an aside, loved reading in Good Living you were flying the flag for Asian food favourites in Sydney when you took your antipodean blogger guest Simon around town (even if he did rag on our town a bit ... but we don't care :P)

  • At 5/04/2009 1:12 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi noodleboy - It's such a fascinating place for dinner isn't it? So much to look at!

    And lol, thanks. I will have to check the book out to see what else he says about Sydney but yeah, always happy to wave the flag for great Asian cuisine :) or should that chopstick? or fork? lol!


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