9 mins reading

The legendary restaurateur has his plate piled high with new openings right now.

First up: a nostalgic CBD eatery that takes its cue from the suburban garage.

By Joanna Savill

“DON’T LOOK AT trends,” says Maurice Terzini. “Stick to what you know and what you do.” Coming from the restaurateur behind some of Australia’s most talked-about eateries, cafes and bars of the past three decades, it’s intriguing advice.

Since opening Caffe e Cucina in 1988, the Italian-Australian power­house has consistently set and reset the benchmark for Melbourne cafes. He was the brains behind launches ranging from Melbourne Wine Room to Otto at Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Bay Wharf, Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons at Melbourne’s Crown Casino, a Milanese-style cafe at Sydney Airport and the hugely popular Da Orazio Pizza in Bondi. Among others.

And then there’s the one and only Icebergs Dining Room & Bar, positioned right above the waves at Sydney’s most famous beach, Bondi – home to the bold, the beautiful and the professional party set – and turning 20 this year.

In December, Terzini ticked off one more item on his to-do list, launching Belongil Beach Italian Food in Byron Bay. Now he’s occupied with Cucina Povera Vino Vero (literally “peasant food, real wine”), which is set to open its suburban garage-inspired doors at 445 Little Collins Street in late March. He’ll run it in partnership with Joe Vargetto, of Kew’s Mister Bianco and the recently closed Massi, which is now the site of the pair’s new eatery.

Grounded in an Italian-Australian aesthetic, Cucina Povera is Terzini’s way of celebrating his Melbourne upbringing. “It’s going back to our roots and our garage culture,” he says, referring to bottling tomato sauce and making preserves, home-style salami and even wine in suburban garages. As for the menu, he says it’s all about “keeping things real”, with dishes that take their lead from the peasant-style food of migrant Italians. “The food will be really simple,” he says. “Broad beans and chicory. A bit of sweet and sour – the Sicilian influence – and easy to understand.”

That said, service will be slick. “It’s a bit tongue in cheek,” says Terzini, whose son Sylvester will be on the floor. “Like we did at Caffe e Cucina: two-dollar coffees served by waiters in bow ties. Even when we had meals in the garage, our parents would pull out the silver cutlery. That’s what Italians do.” As for the interior, expect smart branding, raw concrete and steel – “The Italian brutalist look,” as Terzini puts it – with tablecloths and carefully curated artworks.

Terzini has a few more venues in the planning phase, including another Melbourne bar; a second Belongil eatery; a second CicciaBella, this one in southern Sydney; and an enormous Sydney CBD venture (still under wraps). In late 2021, he took on the food and beverage directorship at the InterContinental (once a Ritz-Carlton) in Sydney’s Double Bay, the hotel having recently been acquired by the developer Paul Fridman, of Fridcorp.

“The excitement of opening more restaurants was the only thing that kept us alive.”

Terzini has been collaborating on the hotel’s next iteration, which comes at a time of swift revitalisation for the bayside suburb. “We’ll be working on the bar, turning it into something like The American Bar at the Savoy,” he says, making mention of a jazz bar. “Then we’ll get stuck into the minibars. Right now, they’re very old school. There’s a rooftop to look at, room service and the dining room, which only has 40 seats. We could go all the way and turn it into a three-star Michelin­style restaurant- a real English vibe. Let’s see.”

It’s a big agenda for an industry still reeling from pandemic restrictions. But Terzini is no stranger to a multi-business portfolio. His strategy? “Once you start doing multiple places, make sure that your DNA flows through. In particular, if you’ve been successful, that hard work of proving yourself has been done. And if you have a failure, keep it quiet.”

And failures there have been, over the years. There were tough times in the late 2000s when a portfolio of eight restaurants contracted to just Icebergs. It was time to regroup. And bounce back. Which Terzini did, bringing Icebergs into its second decade and opening Sydney’s The Dolphin Hotel, a couple of Bali venues, Da Orazio and CicciaBella. He also launched a fashion label and entered into a sustainable-bar partnership. Then Covid-19 hit.

With his shares in most businesses ranging from 50% (at Icebergs) downwards, the pandemic has been a time to take stock. “We lost two years with Covid-19,” he says. “We went underground rather than spending time on the takeaway story. We kept our cash reserves – didn’t spend a cent – and kept across everything seven days a week. The excitement of opening more restaurants was the only thing that kept us alive – our landlords stepped up for us, too – but that energy of opening a new place and creating a concept: that definitely kept me going. We’re entertainers, that’s exactly what we do.”

That energy is now palpable. There’s talk of a Melbourne bar with Joe Jones of Romeo Lane – “Imagine Harry’s Bar in Venice goes punk. Classic drinks. Formal-ish service. Amazing music,” – and a pub-style concept at Belongil Beach, with big tables, a kiosk selling bread and flowers, and the kind of laid-back vibe where you can rock up in your bathers.

Terzini’s is a mind in constant motion, occupied with concepts and always riffing on the past, present and future. He has cupboards and boxes full of menus and other inspirations. “I grew up in the fashion and art world. That’s really where I feel at home,” he says.

In the end, though, hospitality is a business, and attention to detail -from rents and profits to staff costs -is the make-or-break. Terzini ‘s approach can be summed up in a few words: staffing, service, style and sustainability. And sums.

Describing his rent-to-turnover ratio, Terzini says: “I aim for about 6% to 7%. If not, it’s not going to stack up.” As for staffing, he explains: “I never ask staff to cut service hours, I just ask them to be more efficient with non-revenue-generating hours. They’re the hours that kill a restaurant: the set up and break-down times are really expensive.” And he’s equally pragmatic about serviceware and presentation. “In Australia, where wages are incredibly high, you can’t afford 14 food runners,” he says.

Service is also key. “Everyone wants a professional waiter. When you’re in a room, you want to feel as if you’re surrounded by people who look the part. It’s nice for a waiter to have presence; that reassures guests. Whether people are spending $10 or $10,000, if they feel like they made the right choice, they’re happy customers.”

Style goes without saying. Artworks, branding, uniforms and his own inimitable look very much define the Terzini marque. “In the end, we sell a lifestyle,” says Terzini, who also oversees a fashion label, NonPlus, which he runs with Gareth Moody, a founding partner of Tsubi (at the time of our conversation, NonPlus was operating a tailored suit pop-up store in Melbourne).

He’s also joined forces with the internationally renowned bartender and consultant Matt Whiley, of London’s Scout and previously of The Dolphin Hotel, to launch RE, a sustainable bar in Sydney’s South Eveleigh precinct. Everything – from the cocktails to the fit-out – is made with recycled, repurposed, surplus or waste products.

“One of the reasons I joined Matt was to learn more,” says Terzini.  “We’re at 60% zero waste, aiming for 90% in a few years. We’re collecting waste from other restaurants and bars, and making drinks with whey, ground coffee -you name it.”

Terzini says his sustainability ethos and restaurant philosophy are intimately linked. “We haven’t gone out there and preached it, but now we need to,” he says. “We only work with good farmers, sustainable fishermen, ethical chooks, meat, whatever. We work with the right winemakers, not the super-commercial vineyards that exploit yield.

“We tend to gravitate towards people that love the land. That’s just quality. We’re changing the world in that way. I think more respect should be paid to the restaurant world for its influence in that space.”

And, finally, there’s one more S word: self. Terzini is now into running, fasting and a healthy lifestyle, and he often thinks about the future, admitting that he occasionally even thinks about slowing down.

“I started my first business at 23,” he muses. “How many more years can I give as an owner? Maybe I can finish younger and enjoy it all. There has to be an exit clause.”

We’ll see. Our guess is that’s not happening anytime soon.