Melbourne loves a secret. And despite the fact that Cucina Povera Vino Vero is by Australian hospitality heavyweights and long-time friends Maurice Terzini (of Sydney’s iconic Icebergs) and Joe Vargetto (of Melbourne’s Mister Bianco and Massi), slinking into their new Italian diner through a discreet door on Little Collins Street kinda feels like you’re in on a secret.
The former Massi space has been transformed by design studio Latitude into a minimalist yet moodily elegant room. The walls look like big slabs of rendered concrete and floor-to-ceiling grey curtains are draped across the frontage, making it feel like your own little bubble.
“The idea was always that you can’t buy style and you can’t buy authenticity,” Terzini tells Broadsheet. “It’s not like Joe and I decided to go to Rome and then came back and opened a Roman bar. This one is very close to who we are; we are looking back into our childhood memories and the brutalism of the Italian garages and the brutalism of Italian gardens, all concrete, that’s the vibe.”
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It's a homecoming for Terzini. He was born here and his first-ever venue was Caffe e Cucina in South Yarra, followed by Il Bacaro and Melbourne Wine Room. His last – Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons at Crown – closed nine years ago.
Regarded as one of Australia’s great restauranteurs, with a more than 30-year career, Terzini has crafted restaurants with a sharp, almost punkish, singular vision. His success comes down to a simple concept – that the vibe and service should be as remarkable as the food, drinks and the beauty of the venue.
But for both him and Vargetto, there’s an extra layer to this restaurant opening. It’s called Cucina Povera (which means “food of the poor”) and it serves as an homage to the Italian immigrants who came to Australia to make it their home. Their families. Everything on the menu is considered carefully so as to fit into that narrative. “It is the story of my parents and Maurice’s parents coming to Australia.” Vargetto says. “My parents yearned for a simple ricotta or some semolina flour or fennel or some oranges, which they couldn’t get in the ’70s in Australia. And that’s what the menu is about.”
You won’t find prosciutto here, but what you will find is mortadella and handmade salami alongside vegetables that aren’t as ubiquitous in restaurants, like turnip tops and sorrel. Vargetto is doing pork jowl, slowly braised with cinnamon and a few cloves, with parsnips and chestnuts. There’s also goat with fagioli (beans); the meat is cooked low and slow, then taken off the bone. Plus, every hour, Vargetto comes out brandishing a large copper pot from which he ladles freshly made ricotta into little bowls to be spooned onto ciabatta. Warm and sweet, you haven’t had ricotta until you’ve had this.
Dessert keeps to the simple yet excellent brief. There’s cannoli from Footscray pasticceria T Cavallaro & Sons, where Vargetto has memories of calling by for sweets with his parents, and a dish called Half-Time Orange. To make it, Vargetto poaches oranges in sugar syrup for hours then serves them in quarters with his take on modica chocolate; it’s a rich, gritty blend of dark chocolate, brown sugar and a little bit of olive oil. “The Half-Time Orange is basically [inspired by] me growing up and playing soccer, going down to the oval myself on my bike at 12 years old. It is a quarter of an orange with chocolate on the side.”
But more than that, the restaurant taps into family memories that are quintessential of many Italians. “Growing up, our garage was more used than the kitchen,” Vargetto says. “We had freezers and fridges and cupboards out there … and Mum would put her pickles out there alongside the Ford Falcon. It was always a hive of industry.”
Here, booze is Terzini territory. “We have got an absolutely gun Bloody Mary,” he says. “Imagine it’s 12pm, you’re in town, you’re hungover, you need to jump on a plane at 5pm, you come in and have a Bloody Mary, some grilled mortadella.” Perfect. He’s also serving a Negroni Sbagliato (aka a “mistaken” Negroni, which swaps out gin for prosecco). “In Milan it’s served in a litre glass, which is so kitsch, so we went out and found [some]. It’s anti-minimalism.”
As for the wine, there are eight on the list from a rotating selection of producers – they come either by the glass or half-litre. First up is Giorgio De Maria’s Fun Wines. “He is the god of Italian wine,” Terzini says. There’s also a 10-litre goon bag (“a tongue-in-cheek offering for thirsty people”). “We wanted the wine to be lo-fi, smashable garage wine.”
And as for the vibe? “It’s a small room,” says Terzini. “Just come in and go with the flow.” But that’s not to say there’ll be anything slap-dash about the experience: “The service will be like Icebergs service, but for $50 bucks rather than $250.”
Cucina Povera Vino Vero
445 Little Collins Street, Melbourne
(03) 9642 1434
Thu & Fri 12pm–11pm