Small room, big atmosphere: Maurice Terzini and Joe Vargetto open anticipatory cheeky Italian dinner Cucina Povera

Melbourne loves a secret. And despite the fact that Australian hospitality heavyweights and long-time friends Maurice Terzini (of Sydney’s iconic icebergs) and Joe Vargetto (of Melbourne’s Mr Bianco and massi), when you sneak into their new Italian restaurant through a discreet door on Little Collins Street, it feels like you have a secret.

The former Massi space has been transformed into a minimalist yet moodily elegant room by design studio Latitude. The walls look like large slabs of plastered concrete and the facade has gray curtains draped from floor to ceiling, making it feel like your own little bubble.

“The idea has always been that you can’t buy style and you can’t buy authenticity,” Terzini . says pamphlet† “It’s not like Joe and I decided to go to Rome and then come back and open a Roman bar. This one is very close to who we are; we look back to our childhood memories and the brutalism of the Italian garages and the brutalism of Italian gardens, all concrete, that is the atmosphere.”

It’s a homecoming for Terzini. He was born here and his very first location was Caffe e Cucina in South Yarra, followed by Il Bacaro and Melbourne Wine Room. His last – Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons at Crown – closed nine years ago.

Considered one of Australia’s greatest restauranteurs, with a career spanning more than 30 years, Terzini has created restaurants with a sharp, almost punkish, unique vision. Its success boils down to a simple concept – that the atmosphere and service should be as remarkable as the food, drink and beauty of the venue.

But for both him and Vargetto there is an extra layer to the opening of this restaurant. It’s called Cucina Povera (meaning ‘food of the poor’) and it serves as a tribute to the Italian immigrants who came to Australia to make it their home. Their families. Everything on the menu is carefully considered to fit that story. “It’s the story of my parents and Maurice’s parents who come to Australia.” says Vargetto. “My parents craved a simple ricotta or some semolina or fennel or some oranges, which they couldn’t get in Australia in the 1970s. And that’s what the menu is about.”

You won’t find prosciutto here, but what you’ll find is mortadella and handmade salami alongside vegetables not so ubiquitous in restaurants, such as turnip greens and sorrel. Vargetto does pork cheeks, simmered slowly with cinnamon and a few cloves, with parsnips and chestnuts. There is also goat with fagioli (beans); the meat is cooked low and slow and then removed from the bone. Plus, every hour Vargetto comes out brandishing a large copper pot from which he scoops freshly made ricotta into small bowls to be spooned onto ciabatta. Warm and sweet, you haven’t had ricotta until you’ve had this.

Dessert sticks to the simple but excellent command. There is cannoli from Footscray pasticceria T Cavallaro & Sons, where Vargetto has memories of stopping by for candy with his parents, and a dish called Half-Time Orange. To make it, Vargetto poachs oranges in sugar syrup for hours, then serves them quartered with his take on modica chocolate† it’s a rich, grainy mix of dark chocolate, brown sugar, and a little bit of olive oil. “The Half-Time Orange is actually [inspired by] I grew up playing football, and went to the oval on my bike when I was 12 years old. It’s a quarter of an orange with chocolate on the side.”

But more than that, the restaurant taps into family memories typical of many Italians. “Growing up, our garage was used more than the kitchen,” Vargetto says. “We had freezers and fridges and cupboards there… and Mama put her pickles there next to the Ford Falcon. It was always a hive of industry.”

Here drink is the territory of Terzini. “We have an absolute gun Bloody Mary,” he says. “Imagine it’s noon. You’re in town. You’re hungover. You have to jump on a plane at 5:00 PM. You come in and have a Bloody Mary, some grilled mortadella.” Perfect. He also serves a Negroni Sbagliato (aka a “wrong” Negroni, which trades gin for prosecco). “In Milan it’s served in a liter glass, which is so kitsch, so we went out and found [some]† It’s anti-minimalism.”

As for the wine, there are eight on the list from a rotating selection of producers – they come by the glass or by the pint. The first is Giorgio De Maria’s Fun Wines. “He is the god of Italian wine,” says Terzini. There is also a 10 liter bag (“a wink to the thirsty people”). “We wanted the wine to be lo-fi, smashable garage wine.”

And as for the atmosphere? “It’s a small room,” Terzini says. “Just come in and go with the flow.” But that’s not to say there will be something sloppy about the experience: “The service will be like Icebergs service, but for $50 bucks instead of $250.”

Cucina Povera Vino Vero

445 Little Collins Street, Melbourne

(03) 9642 1434

Hours:

Wed 5:00 PM–11:00 PM

Thurs & Fri 12:00–23:00 hrs

Sat 5:00 PM–11:00 PM

@cucinapoveravinovero


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