“I’m so used to the high pace of restaurants and the stress of the industry, so this is an opportunity for me to tap back into cooking and the reason that I got into it in the first place 10 years ago,” says Andre Ursini.
The man behind Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar and Orso and Willmott’s is referring to his latest project, Villetta Porcini, a tiny European-style stone hut (villetta means “small villa” in Italian) and garden nestled in the picturesque valley of his 20-acre Mylor property Lunelli Agriturismo (formerly the historic Longwood Camp site). “Porcini mushrooms bloom all around here down the bottom of the property, so the mushroom theme runs through the place now,” says Ursini.
When Broadsheet last visited two years ago, the site was still in its infancy, with an in-the-works kitchen garden and sky-high forestry, peppered with wild mushrooms and a growing collection of beehives. Now, past the rolling veggie patches, you can see glimpses of festoon lighting and smoke billowing from the chimney of the magical cottage below.
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Making your way down to Villetta Porcini is like stepping into the pages of an (Australian) Enid Blyton novel: bushy pines and towering gums line the way down the winding gravel path, and the twinkling vine-covered arbour at the entryway to the hut (which has heritage barn doors with porcini-shaped handles) reinforces the fairytale. The tiny stone cottage sits deep within the valley, surrounded by dense bushland and fields of seedlings they’ve just planted. “In spring, these will all be wildflowers,” Ursini tells us.
The hut – reserved for food preparation – and outdoor dining space are part of the initial phase of Ursini’s multi-dimensional food concept, which will take shape, slowly, over the coming years. Two years in the making and even longer in Ursini’s imagination, Villetta Porcini is the first customer experience to be introduced to the property, with plans for accommodation, cooking classes, garden tours and more to come. “There is a grand plan for the property, but this is a starting point. I tend to be pretty gung-ho with what I do, so I just want to enjoy this space first before I continue with the rest.”
The unique outdoor dining experience will cater to around 20 guests, with the option of either a tasting menu or an “experience menu” (where you’re seated at the bar – looking into the kitchen – and served by the chefs themselves). There’s also a selection of drink packages on offer, from local to premium and non-alcoholic. Ursini says the lunchtime experience will last three to four hours, “but people can really stay as long as they want”. He adds, “You don’t kick your friends out, after all.”
Nothing about the concept is conventional, which was Ursini’s intention from the get-go. “There is no formula for this experience,” Ursini says. “It’s not just a dining experience where you get served and you eat, it’s a whole educational culinary experience that taps into our passions.”
Ursini’s team will meet the intimate dining party at the entrance to the property, guiding them down the meandering pathway in a little cart to Villetta Porcini at the base of the farm. Guests will be greeted with drinks on arrival in the lawn area and eventually sit for their meal on the farm-style tables dotted around the hut.
Eventually, they’ll be taking a detour through the tiered produce gardens that cascade down the slopes. “It’s about a touchpoint experience for us here, so we might pick some vegetables on the way, harvest some honey from our hives, forage for mushrooms and then cook for them,” says Ursini. For now, it’s purely a dining experience, with the produce garden a work-in-progress for Ursini and his team.
The booking process is unconventional, too: Ursini and his team are bringing back snail mail. After booking their preferred dining package by phone or email, guests will be placed on a waiting list before receiving an invitation in the mail seven to 14 days prior to the suggested reservation. It’s all part of the plan to revisit the nostalgia of traditional, small-scale hospitality. “If you go to Tuscany and you eat in an agriturismo [a farm property that welcomes guests to eat or stay], you’re picking the tomatoes and cooking them, too,” Ursini explains. “It evokes an emotion. We want to go back to providing that emotive experience for guests and reconnect with them.”
As for the menu, expect to be surprised. “I’m going to be cooking completely ad hoc and off the cuff. I have so many dishes that I don’t get to do, so now I’m starting to put them down and I’m looking forward to experimenting again.”
While the dishes will be largely veg-heavy (using produce from the property), there’ll also be a selection of local and imported specialties, depending on what Ursini wants to share from the expansive “culinary cave”. “We’ll enjoy pure delicacies together, like I do when I cook with family and friends. For example, we have a 100-year-old balsamic here, so we’ll be tasting that with the guests at the bar. If there’s caviar, we’re eating it, and if there’s truffle, you’re getting loaded with it. Luxury ingredients shouldn’t be served measly.”
It’s been a big year for Ursini, who opened his contemporary European bistro Orso and adjoining deli and bar Willmott’s last November, all the while maintaining his bustling east end restaurant Andre’s Cucina and its catering arm, which runs from the Mylor property, too. But Villetta Porcini stands apart from them all.
“This is my special space,” he says. “I can connect with the customers again, and I’m not delegating the cooking like I am in my other venues. Everything that we do here, I want to feel really good. We’re in that constant grind in hospitality every day with what we do, so this has to feel good. This for me, taps into the epitome of hospitality. It’s on our terms.”
Villetta Porcini is open now. Bookings are available for Saturday and Sunday lunches between 11am and 5pm, via firstname.lastname@example.org. Dining packages start at $160.