When Tony Nicolini visits Italy, he goes to the same espresso bar every day and orders a coffee. “I drink my coffee nice and short, Italian style, and I drink it standing up at my espresso bar,” he says. Nicolini is in love with the simplicity of Italian food; the entrenched family stories and local towns that exist on the plate and in the cup in every great Italian meal. “The interaction you have with your barista is as important as the coffee itself,” he says.
“In Italian food there are layers and stories and selected ingredients,” says Nicolini, the owner of D.O.C, a collection of Italian restaurants in Carlton, including a pizzeria, an espresso bar and a traditional Italian delicatessen. He is inside the espresso bar on Lygon Street, which is busy with Melburnians, Italians and Melburnian-Italians, coming in and out for coffee and conversation. “For me, it’s about knowing where ingredients have come from. You want to know that the ingredients you are using are from the place they’re meant to come from.”
Today, Nicolini is renowned for bringing high quality, artisan ingredients to the table, a product, he says, of his Italian heritage. He talks to Broadsheet about the flavours that have defined his love for the cuisine, including staple ingredients like flour, tomatoes and olive oil; and the subtle use of classic Italian ingredients like coffee, chocolate, and hazelnuts.
“Hazelnut is my go to flavour when it comes to gelato,” he says. “Two weeks ago in Verona, I had a memorable 'Venchi' Gelato at midnight, and guess which flavour? Yes, Nocciola, and it was made with the I.G.P. Hazelnuts from Alba. Autumn is the season for Nocciola.”
As a second generation Melbourne-Italian, Nicolini was virtually born into hospitality. His father, who was originally from Abruzzo in central Italy, about 180 kilometres east of Rome, moved to Queensland in 1969 and started a traditional pizza restaurant. He moved between Melbourne and Italy in the years after and passed the Italian way of eating and cooking onto Tony. Today, he visits Italy more than once a year, to go to food fares and visit local suppliers.
“When I go to Italy I visit the people who supply our tomatoes. They make beautiful, organic, hand-jarred tomatoes. I visit the people who make our buffalo mozzarella, in Paestum in Campania. And I visit the people who produce our organic olive oil and flour. I’m always trying to create relationships with those small suppliers, because it’s great to have a family and a name behind a product,” he says. “Because behind every great little gorgonzola or pecorino cheese, there is a family with a strong heritage. So we use our delicatessens as a pantry and kitchen for our restaurants, and to showcase our products and the products of our artisan suppliers.”
Provincial by nature, Nicolini says that at the core of Italian food, is the desire to bring people together and to break bread. He says that when you travel through Italy’s many provinces, from Milan in the North to Roma and Naples further south, each town has a story and a signature ingredient. “Every region in Italy specializes in one particular ingredient. There are towns that are known purely for their anchovies in Campagnia - there are little islands known purely for their capers. And when you visit that town, their menus are littered with dishes that highlight those capers,” he says.
When asked about the core flavours and principles in Italian food, Nicolini says it goes beyond the food itself. There is a feeling in Italian food, a combination of familiarity and family and friendship that makes simple dishes taste delicious. In coffee, the same principles apply, and the exchange that local Italians have at the espresso bar in cities like Rome and Milan is something he’s worked to recreate in Melbourne.
“Coffee is an experience, more than anything,” he says. “It goes beyond the cup. It’s social, and it’s about interaction. It’s about the familiarity you have with your barista in the morning, so you stop at the espresso bar to recharge, to reflect on your day and to catch up with people. You’ll find that most Italians will walk into an espresso bar and they don’t even have to say anything. You know, they’ll have your coffee up on the counter before you’ve even ordered it. It’s a respect thing, a relationship thing. It gives pleasure to people. And it works both ways.”
Of course, like at Nicolini’s own restaurants, the emphasis in Italy is on sourcing exceptional ingredients, and ensuring that there is a subtle combination of just a few key flavours. “Milk is left for the morning in Italy, and if you’re going to drink a milk based coffee after 11am then you’re definitely a tourist,” he laughs. “The locals drink espresso, and they get them once, twice or even five times a day. They come in and out, and they go to their local espresso bar more than once a day.”
This piece was produced in partnership with the new CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the 'Emperor Nero’ ice cream with decadent coffee, chocolate coated hazelnuts and hazelnut liqueur.
View our entire Empire flavour exploration here.