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Casa Ciuccio

It has long been my belief that everybody should be granted a holiday on their birthday. (Sadly, this is yet to pass as national law.) Likewise, if you are single on Valentine's Day, you should go out - if you're a girl, with the girls; if you're a boy, on a boy's night. Things are much more fun that way, and you still get to partake in the specials and menus designed by bars and restaurants specifically for the day.

And so it was, that on a glow-inducing, ultra-steamy Valentine's Day in 2013, a possé of nine fabulous Melbourne gals rocked up to Casa Ciuccio (15 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy) for cocktails and a sumptuous feast in celebration of our awesomeness.

Casa Ciuccio (meaning 'donkey house') is a sibling of the lovely Bar Lourinhã on Lt Collins Street - one of my first forays into Melbourne's laneway dining scene and also into Mediterranean, tapas-style share food. Ciuccio opened quietly in early 2012 to a positive reception, particularly by northsiders who seem to lap up this kind of unassuming but classy, bitsy-foodie, late-night venue.

Originally booked for a 6pm sitting downstairs, where there were two sittings scheduled (the plan was to eat cheese and delicious things quickly, then wander up the road for further drinking), we were offered a table in the relatively new upstairs section, with no time restrictions. "We'll take it!"

Keen as always for the fun stuff to start, I arrived early and was shown upstairs to a charming wooden deck area out the back. This area was serviced by a small but beautifully appointed bar, apparently called 'Bar Chooch': minimalist and light, accentuated with antique pieces such as this gorgeous light:

In keeping with the theme, I tried the cocktail special, Ciucc'Amore ('donkey love' - an aperol-based (hence, bright orange) spritzer-style beverage, topped up with sparkling, with a glacé cherry lurking in the bottom. It was strong, bitter and icy - the perfect antidote to the oppressive heat.

'Ciucc'Amore' Valentine's Day aperol cocktail

When all had arrived, we relocated to the dining room, quirkily yet prettily decorated in a mish-mash of subtle antique pieces and strong art, often relating to donkeys or the peasant lifestyle.

We said, 'Just feed us', and feed us they sure did. Get ready for the onslaught of deliciousness...

Anchovy toast thingies... delicious

Zucchini flowers

Chickpea & fennel salad

Octopus tentacle

Zucchini & eggplant salad

All that for what worked out to be around $70 a head. Not bad, right?! All the girls enjoyed the food and the artistic surroundings, and the service was impeccable.

Although there is a feeling upstairs that you're somewhat separated from the action, I would definitely recommend the area for private functions, especially if you can make use of the little deck. When I have visited before, I have always eaten at the communal table downstairs, which has a more informal and modern feel. Both upstairs and downstairs are lovely; they just have different vibes.

Of course, it wouldn't have been Valentine's Day without a rose and chocolate hearts:

At the quieter (Nicholson Street) end of Gertrude Street, Casa Ciuccio is set to become one of those classy constants; a quiet achiever of the locale.

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