With a career spanning more than four decades and a string of successful fine-dining establishments, including Osteria Balla and 80s icon The Restaurant under his belt, Stefano Manfredi has swapped white tablecloths for paper napkins with his latest project, PizzAperta. Returning to his roots by way of his Sydney pizzeria and bar, the “godfather” of Italian cuisine finds new focus in the traditional simplicity of pizza, the ultimate street food.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

18 Mar 2015 - 4:25 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 10:36 AM

On PizzAperta and its co-creator, Antonio Pappalardo: I think Antonio Pappalardo is a big [food idol] for me, even though he’s less than half my age! He’s 25, but has been working in pizzerias since he was 12. Antonio is someone who was born in Naples and moved to Bresci [northern Italy], when he was six, so he understands Neapolitan pizza’s link to tradition, but also understands that when it started as street food, pizza was made with really good ingredients. As it’s moved on, it’s become devalued.

Aside from the classic Neapolitan round pizza in the wood-fired oven [topped with a choice of modern or traditional ingredients and made from high-quality wholemeal flour imported from Northern Italy], we do a Roman focaccia-style pizza. The dough has a beautiful sort of bubbly texture; nice and soft in the middle, crunchy on the outside.

 

On balancing band life with cooking: There was one point where I was working in a restaurant called You and Me in King Street, [Sydney]. It was a daytime restaurant, and back then you could have an expense account, so people would go out to lunch all the time. That meant I had to be at work early to get everything going for lunch. I remember this one particular day, I’d had maybe an hour or two hours’ sleep, and I’d actually fallen asleep on the toilet at work. I heard this ‘bang, bang, bang’ on the door and it was the head waiter saying to me, “You’ve been in there for half an hour!” I’d just fallen asleep on the toilet. Literally. I said at that point, “Well, I need to make a decision here to go this road [cooking] or this road [music].”

 

On the first restaurant he opened with then wife, Julie Manfredi Hughes: We couldn’t find a name for it. We’d always referred to it as ‘The Restaurant’. When we finally got to opening it, it just ended up being The Restaurant. We had so many problems with people going, “Which restaurant?” Then we put ‘Manfredi’ after it, so it became known as ‘The Restaurant Manfredi’. 

Still to this day I don’t think there’s ever been an Italian restaurant to achieve the three Hats. It’s really hard for Italian restaurants because the food is essentially very simple, and the three Hats are given to restaurants that bend over backwards on a plate and do all this sort of arty stuff. For an Italian restaurant to achieve that is very rare.

“When a restaurant is in full flight, it’s buzzing. It’s like going to the theatre. People don’t really need to go out. If they’ve got the time and money, they can entertain at home. What we’re doing is giving them an experience they can’t have anywhere else. From the way it looks and the way we greet them, to what we give them. We try and bring them into our world.”

On the influence of Futurism: The Futurists [a collection of Italian avant-garde artists from the early 20th century] used to have lots of dinners and do weird things. There would be a multimedia situation where food was just one part of the whole experience. Each dish would come with instructions, like, “When you eat this element of this dish, rub your hand on the sandpaper. When you eat this [other] element, rub your hand on the fur.” Back in my first restaurant, The Restaurant, we had events where we recreated these Futurist dinners. Everyone dressed up in weird and wonderful outfits. It’s interesting because it was almost a foretelling of the modernist cooking today.

 

On his cookbook collection: About 10 years ago I stopped buying cookbooks. What interests me more in the cooking genre is a prose form. I want to know why the ingredients are used, where that person comes from, and why they’re cooking what they’re cooking. Context in food is really important for me.

 

On memories from the Italian family table: I always liked my mother’s risotto with saffron (risotto alla Milanese), osso bucco and polpettone, which was veal breast filled with this stuffing my mum and grandmother would make. It’s those sorts of dishes we do [at the restaurants] today. We carry on that tradition.

 

On farming in Italy versus Australia: I think Italy’s a special case because it industrialised really late, so they kind of had their industrial revolution post-war, whereas Britain had it way back in the century before. Italians have this connection to the land that is really strong. They all know artisans. It’s the reason why, when a lot of Italians come [to Australia] they start a garden and fish.

“Dad would always bring things to The Restaurant. He’d come in from Blacktown with boxes and bags. He’d look like someone out of… I don’t know… he looked like a hobbit! Because he’s not really tall, [and] he’d have this bag and cap. Dad would bring in sacks of rocket and lettuce and tomatoes.”

On settling into Australia after arriving by sea in 1961: By the time we got out of the migrant hostel, I’d made friends with Australian kids and went over to their place. It was pretty woeful. We settled in the western suburbs of Sydney, in Blacktown, and my friends had fairly – what I would call – bland, repetitive, boring meals. Whereas, at my place, my mum tried to re-create the meals we had back in Italy, even though she was working at a shirt factory.

It wasn’t always easy to find ingredients here. For example, Mum would have to go to the chemist to buy olive oil. Australians at that time would put olive oil in their ears to get rid of ‘swimmer’s ear’ and so the chemist would sell it in these little 50 ml bottles.

 

On his first meal in Australia:  What I remember is boiled mutton. At that time, Australians didn’t eat lamb – it was too small. They only really started eating lamb in the late 70s, early 80s.

 

On his coffee collaboration with Piazza D’Oro, Espresso di Manfredi: When we started this project in 1999, there weren’t any micro-roasters around. Basically, it was an opportunity for us to have a decent coffee. At the time, there was a lot of stuff being imported, still is, but if you’ve bought coffee from overseas, it goes stale. [Now, we’re seeing] the democratisation of coffee. The café latte is almost like our national drink, but here it’s just called a latte.

 

To find out more about PizzAperta, head here. If you’d like to read more about Stefano, check out our Chef in Action piece or Readable Feast review of his latest cookbook, Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Food. Scroll through Stefano’s recipes here

 

Photography by Anson Smart.