Bill Marchetti

It's a very tricky thing taking on the mantle of a long established business. The Lonsdale Street premises which houses Marchetti's Latin had been operating as a cafe since 1896 and had been home to such famous Italian restaurant families as the Molinas and the Triacas, when the latter sold it, after long negotiations, to Bill and Cheryl Marchetti in 1984.

Bill Marchetti

Despite great interest from Melburnians in seeing The Latin survive, initially it was very tough going. As Bill wryly puts it "after 5 years, I was an overnight success." It had taken the couple that long to get the funds together to do some renovations. The work resulted in a fresher feel to the cosy rooms, whilst not altering the basic layout. Old regulars still feel comfortable, can still head automatically to their favourite table and eat their favourite dishes. Bill's great success here is in maintaining a large range of traditional Italian dishes whilst introducing a number of innovations - his tortelli of sand crab is imitated all round Australia, he's recently developed a risotto with goose and apple, and he is very proud of the duck with cherries soaked in grappa, which is not to be eaten with a lit match in close range.

He has also been able to build up a comprehensive cellar of Italian wines and this, combined with the quality of the food and the situation, gives Melbourne a flagship Italian restaurant, a vestige of the great heritage which a number of Italian restaurateurs, my family included, gave to Melbourne in the first half of this century. But probably Bill is proudest of all of the fact that his restaurant has flourished and survived more than 15 years and that his second establishment, Marchetti's Tuscan Grill, is also still alive. Because for him, it's all about business.

Bill

When he took over the factory premises where he now makes his award-winning pasta, he recalls a sticker left above the desk of the previous owner - 'turnover equals vanity, profits equal sanity'. For him, that was true wisdom. Because he believes being a successful chef is about making a profit on food. "For me it's always been about business, I've always made money for whoever I have worked for, because if you can't pay the bills, you can't cook the food."

Bill says it's the German side of him coming out when he talks like this. His mother is Bavarian and he was born just out of Munich where his Italian-born father worked at the central markets. Here Bill got an excellent early training in product, as that area is a major receiving point for fruits and vegetables coming out of Italy, Spain and the Middle East where they then get re-routed across Europe. The family moved to Italy where the 13-year-old Bill worked the summer season "as a general roustabout in a seaside restaurant in the Marche (on the Adriatic coast of Italy). The menu was predominately seafood and their idea of fresh was if it was flapping. At 5am we'd just go out and find what was available, cook it that day, and the next day, start again from scratch." Here he learnt to love food and the Italian fanaticism about produce, "about cooking real things, not doing too much to them."

Bill

Then, shortly after, the family came to Australia with just a few hundred dollars, so it was straight to work for young Bill as an apprentice at Florentino. But the food was not what he knew from the Italian seaside "it was all bloody steaks and grills." So he decided to speak to the chef, "a great man, whom I had a lot of respect for". Asking him "Do you think I'll ever become a chef working in a place like this? Thank God he took it well - he said 'Well this is Australia, and this is the standard. If you don't like it, change it.'" So the young Marchetti took himself off and set out to learn about 'cooking', then, when he was ready, got into business.

His cooking route took him through the kitchens of Cuisine Bourgeoise (a husband and wife shopfront operation doing wonderful French country food in the '70s); of Tony Rogalsky, and of his own as head chef at Loueys for five years in the 'nouvelle cuisine' period. After that, Bill and Cheryl, his first wife, decided it was time to have their own restaurant, and The Latin was on the market. They loved the idea of taking over such a long cherished place but did not realise the heavy burden of tradition and of old facilities, "the place was a dump. Business was just terrible. We were the emptiest Italian restaurant in the country. Then after we renovated, it just happened and we kept growing - we made up for lost time rather quickly. But then we had the recession, so I was suddenly going from making profit to making absolutely bugger all. It's hard to pull in the reins."

Bill Marchetti

At that stage the reins were very long, with Marchetti restaurants in Queensland and in Sydney. In time 'sanity' came to the fore and 'vanity' put well behind with their closure and concentration of all the family on the Melbourne restaurants. In the meantime the pasta business has continued to grow and sells around the country, as well as internationally. But that's a different style of operation, explains Bill, it can be kept profitable by operating according to demand. He now travels a lot doing promotions to develop that market around Australia, Asia and New Zealand.

He can do this with brother Robert, 20 years his junior, overseeing both kitchens in Melbourne; with 23-year-old son Alex a supervisor at Marchetti's Tuscan Grill and 21-year-old daughter Rosa in the offices of Marchetti's Latin. And now there is Mackie, the first child of Fiona, his second wife. It would seem that the Marchetti's tradition will have several generations of family to maintain it, and the historic Lonsdale Street site which has been an Italian eating place for more than one century will safely continue into the next millennium.

Bill Marchetti's Recipes

Corn and baccala soup
Coda di al vino rosso, oxtail in red wine
Sheep yoghurt pannacotta with cherry grappa sauce