My father, Pietro Grossi, arrived in Melbourne in 1960 with my mother, Marissa, to work as a chef at what was then Mario’s Hotel on Exhibition Street. He went on to become head chef at Tolarno and then at Massoni Ristorante, where I started my apprenticeship. My father was a big influence in my decision to become a chef. He taught me the importance of respecting ingredients, and that the priority of a cook is to make the customers happy.
After opening Quadri, then Café Grossi in 1988, we eventually sold those restaurants to buy The Florentino in 1999, reopening it as Grossi Florentino.
There are three components to Grossi Florentino and each one offers a different experience. The main restaurant is all about being inspired by beautiful, fresh ingredients, and while the food here is fundamentally Italian, it isn’t necessarily traditional. The strawberry cannoli (recipe page 67) is a good example of this. I’ve taken a popular Sicilian pastry and given it a modern twist. The Cellar Bar, however, is about traditional, home-style food, like the pumpkin tortellini with sage butter (recipe page 64), while The Grill is more upmarket with Tuscan-inspired meat dishes, like the classic La Fiorentina T-bone steak and crumbed lamb cutlets (recipe page 62).
Then there’s Mirka at Tolarno Hotel, which I bought in 2006. I wanted to create a continental bistro, inspired by Melbourne’s influx of migrants in the 1960s, combining the Mora’s [the former owners] French-Hungarian ancestry, the Jewish cake-shop culture, and, of course, the Italians; it’s a real cultural dining scene with a modern menu.
As an osteria, Merchant is less structured than the restaurants and specialises in food from Veneto, where my mother grew up. There are dishes like bigoli (long tubular pasta) with duck ragù, and polenta with gorgonzola – it’s about sharing and having fun. I’ve compiled a lot of these recipes in my new book, Menus from My Mother’s Kitchen (out in 2012). You’ll find many of the home-style meals I grew up with: gnocchi with fontina, bollito e pearà (boiled meats with a sauce made from breadcrumbs and pepper), and snacks, such as apple fritters and panzarotti (filled pastries). It’s a story of migration, and the food that comforts us and reminds us of our home country; food is, after all, how the Italians brought the 'old country" with them to Australia.
Italian cooking is so varied and broad. For my next book, I’ve been travelling through Italy meeting beef, olive oil, wine, cheese and polenta producers, and tasting the food in different regions. There is such a vast variation in the way Italians from different regions think and approach food, and the habits and languages are completely different. As a chef, it offers a broad palette to work with and makes Italian cuisine very accessible.
Over the years, the food at Florentino has become more refined; it’s fresher and lighter. This is even happening in Italy. People want less tricky food with less seasoning and with quality ingredients. I think we’ve come full circle at Florentino. When the restaurant first started serving Italian food in 1928, they were trying to emulate the food of the old country, but, today, a new kind of Italian has been defined; it’s Melbourne Italian.
Interview by Selma Nadarajah. Photography by Derek Swalwell.
As seen in Feast magazine, October 2011, Issue 2. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.