“Nobody needs to eat another meal. We are not starving in Melbourne.” We’re sitting in Bar Di Stasio with the venue’s owner, discussing the idea that you don’t go out to eat food, you go out to be with people. As Ronnie Di Stasio sees it, part of a restaurant’s job is to make your experience as worthwhile as possible by removing any distractions that might get in the way of this.
A restaurant, he says, need only cover a few essentials. “A good wine list. Ice, lemon and good food. And a waiter who knows what he’s doing. It’s pretty basic. It’s fundamental.” He looks me in the eye. “You work hard, and at the end of the day, the reward is going to have a good meal. I think we can all agree on that.”
It’s a Tuesday night in autumn, and Ronnie Di Stasio is in full flight. At the grand marble slab that runs through the year-old Bar Di Stasio, next door to the restaurant he has helmed for more than 25 years, he makes it sound easy.
The night before, both venues were heaving. The occasion was a cocktail party to celebrate the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces’ arrival at the NGV, the first time Spain’s Museo del Prado has ever toured its Italian masterworks. The exhibition holds pieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Correggio. Trays of Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Juleps and Negronis were circulated by Di Stasio's white-jacketed waiters, contributing to the celebratory mood.
In speeches praising the Prado and the treasures that have never before left Spain, it seemed entirely appropriate that NGV director Tony Ellwood and Arts Minister Heidi Victoria were equally as effusive about both Di Stasio’s long-time restaurant manager, Mallory Wall, and Di Stasio himself, who held court with Rosco the labradoodle.
At the bar again the next night to continue our chat for this piece, things start cautiously. Despite opening a new venue, Di Stasio and Wall have given few interviews, and aren’t completely sold on this one. It’s not that they aren’t interested, it’s just they’re not entirely sure why Broadsheet is.
When he wants to, Di Stasio cuts an imposing figure, even with Rosco sat next to him at the bar. Like many people with reputations that precede them, it’s hard not to approach a meeting without wondering which side of Di Stasio you’ll get. Although this interview has been in the works for weeks, as I take a seat and pull out my notebook, the early signs are not promising.
“So what do you want the story to be?” Di Stasio asks. He waves a hand around the bar. “Are you after a glimpse of what this is all about? Do you want to demystify it?”
His waved hand encompasses not just a bar, but a restaurant that set its own standard for occasion dining in Melbourne. An establishment special enough to become a hub for the city’s arts community and create the sense that anything could happen, by ensuring anything often did. It’s a place admired by Marco Pierre White and which crafted a lunch Anthony Bourdain called the best he’s ever eaten. But it’s not just Café Di Stasio. It’s 25 years running one of the most praised restaurants in the city, and taking 22 of those years to decide to open another. And, of course, it’s the stories, the regard in which this old-school restaurateur is held by every major player in the city.
So, yes. Thank you. Demystifying all this would be great.
With Flinders Lane currently making a case for being the culinary axis of this city, it seems appropriate to start there, as Di Stasio did in 1985. With Rosati, his first restaurant, he could make an equally strong case for being the first to turn Melbourne’s attention to its laneways.
“Instinct,” he says, when I ask what led him off the main street. “I liked the feel of it. The fact it was hard to find, slightly secretive. It wasn’t flashing at you.”
Rosati may have been on a lane, but it certainly wasn’t small – the space seated 500. “What I didn’t realise was I was punching above my weight with the size,” Di Stasio acknowledges. “That was lack of experience. Too much chutzpah, too much testosterone. But it was a party for Melbourne and it changed the landscape.” This isn’t the talk of someone wearing rose-coloured glasses. Food critic John Lethlean once wrote that Rosati was, for a time, “The zenith of cool. The must-visit, must- drink, must-eat, see-and-be-seen epicentre of buoyant, pre-crash Melbourne.”
For Di Stasio, and everyone else, Rosati was a long time ago, but ask him about the restaurants that lit up ’80s Melbourne and you’re hit by a flood of names and memories. “I’ll tell you the ones that appealed to me: Florentinos, all over. The Cellar Bar was good, and upstairs was special,” he says, leaning on his bar. “Fanny’s Downstairs. Dark, small and expensive, but there was something magical about that place. It cut through the things you didn’t need. Pellegrini’s was always there, but what inspired me was De Chaineux, which Allan Powell designed in South Melbourne. Allan Powell, in my opinion, revolutionised Melbourne dining with De Chaineux.”
What Di Stasio experienced in this near-forgotten brasserie transformed his thinking about dining, taking it from a special occasion, towards, as he says, “Something more egalitarian, plebian, casual.” Crucially, “It wasn’t awkward. It was very easy and beautiful to use. It was an old fish-and-chip shop he turned into a restaurant and I loved that idea of making things work.”
Listening to Di Stasio explain what he was trying to achieve with his very first restaurant, you can’t help but be struck by the detail. Influences fly through the conversation, “Like Philippe Starck turning plastic furniture into beautiful design. That’s what we were trying to do. Like a Milan railway station,” and it’s apparent that even if it wasn’t a total success, Rosati taught lessons that helped Café Di Stasio hit its highs. Rosati may have been a party, but make no mistake, it was his eponymous restaurant that made him. The legendary quality and inventiveness of the Café Di Stasio kitchen, and how it existed alongside a capacity for scandalous behaviour, has endeared him to this city.
As for the new place next door, the first time I met Ronnie he’d spoken of a clear vision for Bar Di Stasio. It would be a place where travelling friends could come straight off a plane and feel comfortable enough to leave a suitcase behind the bar while heading to meetings in the city. A home away from home for a certain type of person.
There’s no doubt this has been achieved, but to assume this leaves the rest of us on the outside would be a shame. The casualisation married with the quality he strove for at Rosati has been mastered, and the consideration of every element in the dining experience is extraordinary.
“You have to include husbandry,” Di Stasio muses at one point. “That’s a word not many people know in the hospitality industry. You or I should be able to go out and not see a dead plant or a tissue on the floor ... ”
“ ... or a power point,” finishes Wall, sitting next to him. “Sometimes you don’t notice these things, or you think you don’t notice these things,” she says, “but you do.”
“Like awkwardness,” agrees Di Stasio. “These things should be absent.”
There’s another key principle to Di Stasio’s ethos on hospitality that he takes pains to make clear: generosity. “If I pour a little bit more wine in your glass, it’s not going to send me broke,” he says. “I’m not worried about percentages. It’s about eye-to-eye contact, the ongoing relationship with your customers.”
And don’t get him started on the cult of the over-complicated dish. “It’s more important to have a good time than to have a meal cooked by Chef Whateverhisnameis, who’s slaved over food that you have to like. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. It’s the people you go with, the atmosphere you’re in. I take the food for granted, because it’s got to be good.”
For Di Stasio, the true masters of the restaurant game are the stayers, those with a vision brought to pin-sharp focus by years of dedication. When asked for examples, he cites Cibréo in Florence, Al Moro in Rome and Modena’s Hosteria Giusti, restaurants that have been in the same family or location for decades. “Places where nothing changes except the season,” he says, leaning on the word. “It’s seasonal, regional. That’s food, and that’s who I look up to. I’m afraid we’ve become too franchised in Australia, and there’s an absence of tradition. All right, you can go out for Mexican or Argentinian. It’s all nice, but for me, there’s no postcode, nothing to hang on to.”
“One of my favourite places in Melbourne is Tiamo,” he continues. “It’s been there 50 years and served the local community well. They can rely on it. Students, people with not so much money. It’s continuous. There’s an element of that here, too.”
Listening to him speak about the joy of setting up Bar Di Stasio, his love for St Kilda or the respect he has for the great restaurants of Italy, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s lost touch with the rest of Melbourne. Strangely, it seems as if he’d welcome this impression. He’ll tell you he doesn’t like to go out much, but mention where he grew up in Thornbury and he’ll speak enthusiastically about the new bar being opened by the owner of Umberto Espresso (“He’s a good boy, Marco”), while a mention of Carlton begins an animated discussion of The Town Mouse, and then La Cacciatore (“For some strange reason it still exists. The original owner’s son-in-law still runs it”), the first restaurant he ever went to.
Given his roots in the northern suburbs, the move to St Kilda seems an odd one. For Di Stasio, it felt like the exact right place to be. “The bohemian glamour attracted me,” he says. “St Kilda doesn’t make any excuses. It is what it is and you like it or you don’t. I like it. The broken glass, the graffiti, the misfits. The real colour.”
“People are scared of St Kilda,” says Wall. “A lot of traders on the other side of town have more supportive councils, so it’s become known as a difficult place to operate, and people are frightened away by the seedier side of it.”
“There’s a psychological block too, because of the junction,” adds Di Stasio. “People think it’s miles away.”
As Wall excuses herself to attend the kitchen, talk turns to Di Stasio’s Yarra Valley vineyard. Growing up watching his parents making wine and tilling their backyard garden, it seems a vineyard was in his destiny. But the gallery he built with it?
“Existence is food, wine, art. That’s what will sustain you,” Di Stasio smiles.
“I came late to art collecting, and it was luck and accident the big names of my time were already in St Kilda. Jenny Watson, John Nixon, Peter Booth and so on.” While his purchases focused on Australian artists and were influenced by friends who came through the restaurant (not least gallerist Anna Schwarz), Di Stasio was beginning to think about the way Australian art was being represented overseas. Specifically, in Italy. More specifically, at the Venice Biennale, which for more than a century has been perhaps the world’s most influential contemporary art exhibition.
In 1988, the year Café Di Stasio opened, Australia opened a pavilion there. “The Italians offered it to three countries, but the first choice was Australia and they had a month to erect something. My understanding was Glenn Murcutt took too long with his design, so Philip Cox came along with something that was only meant to be temporary,” Di Stasio says. It stayed for 20 years, and while it helped Australia secure a space within the Giardini gardens that house the permanent pavilions, it had outlived its purpose.
“I thought rebuilding the Australian pavilion in Venice was a good idea,” Di Stasio says, as if the thought would occur to anyone. “I started a campaign in 2006, and in 2015 it will be built, ready, done. It was a big, expensive, gut-wrenching campaign, but very satisfying.”
While it did not uncover the design that will replace the original pavilion, there’s no question Di Stasio’s 2008 ideas competition was a big part of the groundswell that helped prompt the Australia Council to launch its own, formal search for a design three years later.
And once the new design was settled, Di Stasio, being Di Stasio, offered to put the original pavilion on a ship and bring it back to Australia, to sit on his Yarra Valley property so its history can be preserved.
“I’d like to put it back together again, house exhibitions for Melbourne University students. We’ve had meetings with the vice-chancellor there and he’s interested,” he says, “But it’s all up to the Australia Council. It’s not as easy as just putting it in a container, unfortunately.”
It goes without saying that these efforts to meld his Italian and Australian passions are replicated within his restaurants. Di Stasio, Wall and many of their staff take regular trips to Italy, and he credits Wall’s travels with much of the new restaurant’s look. “There were elements that came from a lot of Mallory’s trips,” Di Stasio says. “The walls, the height of the bar, the marble. We didn’t have to look in a coffee-table book.”
Asking about Wall’s research trips, I’m quickly corrected. “They’re not research trips, they’re holidays,” Di Stasio says. “I’ve heard people say, ’I want to open a Mexican restaurant. I’m going to Mexico for six weeks.’
"What can you learn in six weeks? Nothing. Nothing at all,” he says flatly. “Mallory loves Italy, and in going there you take on the culture and it reconfirms everything we’re doing here. The night she left on her last trip, we had a quick dinner and the bar was on fire, it was pumping. Italy informs this place, but you don’t realise how good it is until you come back.”
“I like to go to three places. St Kilda, the Yarra Valley, and Italy,” he grins. “Don’t ask me to go to Bali. At this stage of my life, it’s Italy. I haven’t had enough. I’m Italo-Australian. It took me a long time to work that out, and that’s what I’m trying to promote.”
It sounds simple, and of course, it is. But what makes Di Stasio a success is the thought and consideration that leads to his simple revelations. The fuss that goes into being unfussy. Riding home after a second night in his company, I remember an off-hand comment he’d made about the most important ingredient in Italian food being restraint. Thinking about this in the context of his larger-than-life persona and cocktail parties full of artists, it seemed both at odds with his vision and perfectly in tune with it. Because beneath the glamour, the customers and the Fitzroy Street drama, there is a great wine list. And ice, lemon, waiters who know what they’re doing, and great food.
Cafe di Stasio and Bar di Stasio
31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
(03) 9525 3999