The Opera of Dining with Di Stasio

It’s not often a place upends your understanding of what a restaurant can or should be. Rinaldo Di Stasio’s new city diner, Città, is such a place. Distinct from any other food and drink space in the country, it embodies the restaurateur’s uncompromising approach to hospitality, which sees food, art, design and connection as one and the same.

Published on 24 May 2019

“You get what you wanted?” Rinaldo Di Stasio asks as I close my notebook. It’s the kind of quick, half funny, half serious question you know to expect from the Melbourne restaurateur. “No more interview. Let’s eat,” is what he means.

Perfectly dressed staff waft around his three-month-old, art-filled city restaurant. The waitresses wear billowing floor-length navy dresses adorned with red beads. The beads resemble rosaries and match the dining chairs upholstered in lipstick-red leather. Nothing is an accident at Di Stasio Città – everything has its place.

“I love how serious this is,” my lunch partner says as we watch Di Stasio order, in Italian, for the table. Instructions are delivered, reiterated and finally entrusted.

“The natural habitat of the waiter and waitress is to flirt, talk and move on,” says Mallory Wall, the final member of our table. Di Stasio’s long-time restaurant partner is a hostess nonpareil; she misses nothing and no one. She’s playful and welcoming, and puts you at ease as soon as you’ve passed through the brushed-concrete entrance that conceals Città’s prodigious, brutalist interior from Spring Street.

How did we end up here? A few weeks earlier, sitting at the restaurant’s long, dark stone slab of a bar – ideal for those in search of a bit of theatre – Di Stasio leant over and said to me, “Let’s have an operatic lunch.” It sounded intriguing. And ominous. Like the kind of thing Café Di Stasio, his restaurant in St Kilda, has built its fame and infamy on over the past 30 years. “Promise me,” he said. “One day, we’re going to be here, no customers, and we’ll play some opera.”

Il Primo: spaghetti la gricia sbagliato

Restaurants like this don’t open very often – not in Melbourne, nor anywhere else in the world. Città is emphatically of the city but doesn’t feel or even remotely resemble another dining room in it (or Australia, for that matter). It’s not on trend in any way. Words like “imposing” and “art-filled” are accurate descriptions but also don’t do the place justice. This is a tribute to Italy and Australia, and a statement about what it means to live between the two. And whether you enter Città for the first or fifth time, you feel a rush.

Di Stasio opened his first restaurant, Rosati, in 1985. Three years later he established one of the city’s dining institutions. His eponymous St Kilda diner, Café Di Stasio, introduced a new way of drinking and dining to Melbourne – the kind we now take for granted – by reframing the idea of “occasional eating”. In Di Stasio and Wall’s care it wasn’t formal – it was instinctual, but considered; simple but finely hewn; unfussy but fastidious. It’s good wine, good food and good friends any day of the week – not just anniversaries or birthdays. They built an institution that had fans in Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White, and which is as popular as ever 31 years later.

Café Di Stasio has always been about more than just food and drink. The white-jacketed waiters, the clubby atmosphere, the abstract Bill Henson photography – they’re an uncompromising expression of Di Stasio himself; of what he thinks and feels about the world. Likewise, Città is a statement, and a strong one at that. Resting on your laurels doesn’t feel like an option around these parts. Di Stasio is of the old guard but he takes more risks than many in the new.

Rinaldo Di Stasio inside his restaurant, Di Stasio Città

“He wants you to know where he’s coming from,” says the designer of the space, Di Ritter of Hassell Studio. While this attitude bears undeniably good fruit, Di Stasio demands more than a casual working relationship with his collaborators. It’s a familial arrangement involving make-or-break amounts of mutual love, trust and collegamento (connection). “He’s my favourite client. The hardest, but my favourite,” Ritter says.

“If you’re frustrated – good, it’s working. If perfection is what you’re after, then there will be some hard times.”

Rinaldo Di Stasio

The black and white terrazzo floor, for example, took seven weeks to complete, during which time every other aspect of the build was effectively put on hold. Di Stasio wouldn’t consider another contractor. “He has his favourite builder and only him,” Ritter says. “Two guys, a couple of old Italian men, hand-poured the terrazzo.”

“Terrazzo Bob?” Di Stasio asks as we get into the spaghetti la gricia sbagliato. “There’s nothing you can do till it’s done.”

He’s ruled by instinct, not by fashion, and wants everything to be “just right”. A seamless meeting of simplicity and excellence must be achieved. Despite this arduous, expensive process and the connotations of luxury that come with it, Di Stasio says terrazzo’s pragmatic, hard-wearing surface gives the space a more egalitarian feel (in Italy its used in government buildings, schools), and it makes Città more experiential. “It makes it club-like, more casual,” he says. “[Guests are] not going to a ball, they’re going to a cocktail party.”

Get dressed up, come for some theatre and “opera”, be entertained. Talk, flirt, gossip, eavesdrop. Do as the Romans do. Have fun. That is the essence of Città.

Originally the walls were going to be painted smooth. They ended up covered in hand-plastered grey stucco. “[The result is] high maintenance – not generally a good thing for a restaurant,” Ritter explains. The surface is somewhat porous; its proximity to food and cooking not ideal. “But Ronnie and Mal’s standards are higher and if it needs it, they’ll look after it.”

An interior wall at Di Stasio Città

The heavy, slab-sided entrance of the restaurant – reminiscent of Milanese entryways, which give little away up-front but soon reveal all – was modelled in plywood, at full size, before anyone committed to a final design. At first it was going to be a precarious Stonehenge, balancing with one edge just touching the other, but seeing it in real life the team realised the outsized front door needed to emphasise strength and stability. The weight of the heavy, brutalist walkway lifts the moment you slide past the glass doors and only the lightness of the room remains. It’s a great effect.

The sculptural, multi-tiered Murano-glass chandelier, which looks as though it has swum up from the depths of the ocean and found a home, was also mocked-up to scale. Its position and placement in the narrow galley-like gallery to the left of the main dining room is just as important as the feature wall that displays OA_RR, a video work by acclaimed Australian artist Reko Rennie.

Il Secondi: saltimbocca alla Romana con polenta uncia, spinachi saltati e insalata

Di Stasio has long been a patron of the arts and famously ran a contest for architects to redesign the Australia Pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Involvement with the Italian contemporary arts exhibition – arguably the world’s most influential – is a significant arrow in an artist’s quiver, and over the years artists such as Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg, Isamu Noguchi, Lucio Fontana and Ricky Swallow have represented their countries.

It was here that Di Stasio first saw OA_RR, which promptly reduced him to tears. Later, at a private viewing in Venice, he purchased the work and committed to putting it in the restaurant. “Rek, I gotta have it,” Rennie recalls Di Stasio saying.

Occupying pride of place at Città, the three-screen film is the first artwork you see when you walk in, projected onto the restaurant’s back wall. From the street, at night, the flickering imagery and Rennie’s distinctive palette shines bright.

Rennie produced OA_RR after hearing stories about wealthy Australian landowners who in the early 1900s drove Rolls-Royces to church while Aboriginal women, men and children laboured on their farms for nothing but rations. Rennie, who’s an Indigenous Australian, painted a Rolls-Royce in his signature neon “camouflage” and the patterns of his Kamilaroi people, then drove the car to a former pastoral station near his ancestral land in New South Wales.

The artist grew up in Melbourne’s western suburbs surrounded by immigrant stories of tragedy and survival, just like his grandmother’s experience of personal heartbreak and life as a part of the Stolen Generation. She was forcibly taken from her family when she was eight years old. In the film, Rennie drives as the old colonial land-owners once did, hands clad in leather gloves. He hits an open expanse and does doughnut after doughnut. “I had to shoot the whole thing illegally,” he says. “Shooting without permission is part of it. That’s my land, our land.”

Reko Rennie's OA_RR, inside Di Stasio Città

OA_RR might seem an odd fit for an Italian restaurant, but it’s perfect for Di Stasio and the Italian-Australian philosophy he calls “Italianality”. This framework for living emphasises the importance of dettaglio (details) and the aforementioned collegamento. It’s a call to stop and smell the roses; to enjoy life by throwing yourself into it. To Di Stasio, this outlook is more Italian than Ferrari and pizza will ever be. And Australia provides the space and opportunity that’s sometimes hard to come by in the motherland.

What Rennie brings to this relationship may be more political than that, but it’s the commonality of art that brings these two worlds together. There’s a synergy between these two guys. Di Stasio is an aficionado and connoisseur; a patron and a fan. Di Stasio and Wall “support artists like us... to do bigger and better things”, Rennie says.

Left to right: Mallory Wall, Reko Rennie, Lola and Rinaldo Di Stasio inside Di Stasio Città

There are restaurants in this country filled with fine art. This is different. It’s not about aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake – just as the food isn’t just about satisfying guests’ appetites. Di Stasio is connected to the walls here on a deep and personal level.

Another Rennie piece, the wryly titled Visible Invisible, is on the facade and involves more of the artist’s high-octane “camouflage”. It’s constructed of several interlocking, high-gloss panels prepared by a local automotive-paint specialist.

“Made in Melbourne,” Di Stasio said with a smile during its installation. It’s not every day a billboard-sized work by one of the country’s most acclaimed fine artists pops up on the side of a building. Let alone in a place where it can be seen up close, even touched.

Reko Rennie's Visible Invisible, on Di Stasio Città's facade

Back inside, work by Shaun Gladwell occupies another large wall. Like Rennie, Gladwell is a Venice Biennale alum, his moving-image work and video art has been shown the world over and he’s

considered a significant artist in Australia’s contemporary-art canon. He’s an enthusiastic man, and a fast talker.

His main work at Città is an homage to aviation, in particular Australian aviator Nancy-Bird Walton. The piece was originally part of The Lacrima Chair, a larger project made up of “several interrelated fragments” commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. It’s a wonderful, sometimes odd, always mesmerising tribute to an Australian rule-breaker. A woman wearing an old aviator cap and goggles, lips coloured like red wine, is bobbling serenely in a deep-blue expanse of sea. It, like everything else at Città, is about connection – this time with Australia and a shared pride in our achievements.

An excerpt from Shaun Gladwell's The Lacrima Chair, inside Di Stasio Città

“I love birds and aviation and anything to do with them,” Gladwell says at a million miles a minute. “I really love the Australian aviators, they were so brave... Nancy-Bird Walton is my hero, I’m kind of in love with her, everything she was and still is.” Known as the Angel of the Outback, Walton defied the traditions of the time to become a commercial pilot in 1934 at the age of 19. In 2010, Qantas’s first Airbus was named in her honour. Her story is enduring and powerful, and Gladwell’s insistence on honouring her legacy is the same. “It’s on permanent show as long as Ronnie needs or wants,” says Gladwell. “He’s a supporter of art and I really like talking to him about culture and history.”

Il Dolce: caffè, fiche e uve

So Città is, among other things, a gallery and an indoor piazza for meeting and taking part in the city’s goings-on. Stop in for drink, then discuss the monolithic walls that look hewn from a quarry and dropped in place by giants.

“It’s a cocktail bar with Italian food,” Di Stasio offers modestly – falsely or not, it doesn’t matter. Ask yourself why you return anywhere. Experience. Memories last longer than the contented fullness offered by a bowl of pasta, or the happy glow imparted by a glass of barolo.

The red leather chairs, the graceful waiters, the idiosyncratic artworks. Individually, these things could seem pretentious, but in the hands of a pro with 30 years in the business they make for a heady experience that feels meaningful. For Di Stasio, the experience is both the means and the ends.

Ritter, Rennie, Gladwell and everyone else who brought this project together speak of love and trust and fondness and pride and family and friendship. When this much emotion is involved, trials and tribulations are inevitable.

“If you’re frustrated – good, it’s working,” Di Stasio says. “If perfection is what you’re after, then there will be some hard times.” And Di Stasio wants to get as close to hospitality perfection as possible.

Opera plays loudly into the afternoon and Di Stasio asks, “You get what you wanted?” It sounds like a question any restaurateur might ask any patron in any restaurant in the world, but from Di Stasio the question is more loaded.

“Do you get it? Do you see, really, what I’m doing here? Because we are connected now.”


This story originally appeared in print issue 26.