Stefano de Blasi lifts his baseball cap and rubs at his head distractedly. The restaurateur is sitting in his latest creation, La Costa Restaurant, bashing out emails and marshalling staff. It’s two days until opening night and – like every food and beverage opening ever, it seems – it’s going down to the wire. De Blasi says he’s been to a GP for stress-related health issues.
“It’s weird because I don’t feel it,” he says. “I go 100 miles an hour, I never stop. I see my stress now as similar to one, two or three years ago, just every time I open a venue. I don’t see a difference.”
The difference, perhaps, is that de Blasi used to open a new venue every one, two or three years. With La Costa Restaurant’s debut in early February, he and regular business partner Edoardo Perlo made it five new Fortitude Valley venues in six months.
The Salt Meats Cheese owners opened late-night Rome-inspired diner Eterna in the old Longtime space on Ann Street in August, before teaming up with Sydney’s Maybe Sammy crew in December to unveil Cielo Rooftop Bar and La Costa Bar, which moved into the heritage-listed Forester’s Hall spaces previously occupied by Altitude Rooftop Bar and Foresters Bar. Last month came La Valle, an Italian-influenced wine bar that’s taken over the poky former digs of Valley Wine Bar, 50 metres down Alfred Street from Foresters.
It’s been a relentless strike rate – one made harder by having to work around issues created by the ongoing pandemic.
“You can’t find staff,” de Blasi says. “And some existing staff have their own Covid-related issues. They can’t go home, they can’t see family, they can’t travel, they can’t see friends. So everything is putting a lot of pressure on business owners.”
De Blasi and Perlo’s rapid expansion reads like a case study in how Covid-19 is reshaping Australia’s food and drink industry. The pandemic ran a broom through Brisbane, clearing out operators and leaving behind empty tenancies. Landlords have been eager to cut deals, encouraging restaurateurs to roll the dice on what might’ve once been perceived as risky tenancies.
“It gives us the power to sit down with the landlord and ask, ‘Hey, what do you want to do? Can you give us a good deal for 12 or 24 months?’” de Blasi says. “And they prefer to fill it and talk about rent in a couple of years.”
Initially, de Blasi and Perlo only wanted the rooftop space to open Cielo, but landlord Accor’s counter-offer required them to take on all four tenancies (three, if you count La Costa Bar and La Costa Restaurant as one venue).
“That’s why we got Maybe Sammy involved [in all four venues], as a point of difference,” de Blasi says. “They can produce amazing cocktails. We now look at all these venues as an investment in the future of this area, which will become a destination. And with Salt Meats Cheese and Eterna, we know how to do good food.”
If Cielo, La Valle and La Costa Bar (alongside popular existing venues such as Baja and Netherworld) have already helped create a mini precinct of classy food and drink, La Costa Restaurant ties both elements together into a single 120-seat eatery. The bones of the old Foresters Restaurant are still here, but gone are the flashy references to Flatiron-era New York. Instead, de Blasi and Perlo (with the help of interior stylist Sarah Vize) have opened up the space and brightened the colour scheme, making the most of the natural light that shines through the enormous windows overlooking Alfred Street.
“We want that feeling that you’re outside,” de Blasi says. “You’re inside with good food and good music, but it’s such a busy street. You can see things happening: groups heading out to party, guys with cases of beer.”
The food is a variation on Eterna’s uncomplicated style of pasta and Salt Meats Cheese’s Italian pizza, alongside a clutch of classy main dishes. The pastas include a nduja linguini with garlic and white-wine sauce; a pappardelle with truffle cream, parmesan and sliced truffle; and a Moreton Bay bug spaghetti finished with lemon and oregano. On the pizza menu there are classics such as margherita, quattro fromaggi and diavola as well as more singular creations such as the Roma Capitale (sliced potato, rosemary, pancetta and fior di latte) and the Basil Italia (fior di latte, chargrilled zucchini and caramelised onion on a pesto base). For mains, there’s whole baby barramundi, mussels poached in white wine, harissa-baked heirloom carrots, and a 300-gram sirloin. There’s also a tight selection of starters and desserts. Everything is keenly priced, with the most expensive meal coming in at $36.
For drinks, there’s the Maybe Sammy-designed cocktail list from La Costa Bar next door, accompanied by an internationally minded, small-producer focused wine list and a clutch of tap beers.
The intention is to create a casual, affordable and very fast-paced twist on traditional Italian. To that end, de Blasi has hired a bunch of ex-Jamie’s Italian chefs and front-of-house staff, led by general manager Claire Ritchie. It’s a team battle hardened by CBD lunch hours and $10-pasta frenzies, and another sign of the practicality with which de Blasi and Perlo are going about their opening blitz.
“I always think, ‘You know what? If it doesn’t work and I fuck it up and I lose everything, I’ll pack my bags and go home to Italy,” de Blasi says. “If it was a game of poker, I’d be all in … Covid is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Even if in three or four years there’s another disease or pandemic, people will be ready for it – venue owners, landlords. This was the first in 100 years, so no one was ready.”
La Costa Restaurant
209 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley
(07) 3184 6738
Wed to Fri 5pm–Late