Mietta & Friends

Australia's top chefs and food educatorsin words and photographs

Stefano Manfredi

Stefano Manfredi

Stefano Manfredi (front), his mother Franca, and brother Frank, at the stoves of Restaurant Manfredi. Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

In the course of twelve years spent tucked away in the back streets of Ultimo, Sydney, Stefano Manfredi has shown Australians a whole new way to look at Italian food. And when he achieves his ambition of opening a new Restaurant Manfredi in the more stylish environs of East Sydney, it is unlikely that more opulent surroundings will reduce the potency of his influence. In fact, a bigger kitchen, better facilities and enhanced accessibility for a devoted eating public should ensure even greater impact.

Steve explains: "What we try to do is maintain that very fine line between home cooking and restaurant cooking. We make it special enough so people want to come out, but at the same time we maintain that simplicity."

Three members of the Manfredi family in the kitchen - Steve, brother Frank and mother Franca - ensure that the essence of home cooking remains. Steve's father Luigi, a retired engineer, grows a lot of the produce including the rocket, tomatoes and herbs for the restaurant while Julie, Steve's wife, maintains an elegant and welcoming front of house.

"We are beginning to outgrow the old place," says Steve.

"It is almost bursting at the seams. Sometimes, it just doesn't work. We have only six burners, a charcoal grill and three ovens, and the menu has become not produce-driven, as I would wish, but kitchen equipment-driven.

Stefano Manfredi serving his dinner with some of the Mietta's team.
hotograph ©Tony Knox 1995

"We have three burners to do everything so we limit pan work, do a lot of roasting - searing, and then finishing off in the oven. And there are three pots of water on for vegetables and pasta.

Stefano calls for a waiter during service. 'Curiously, the more pressure we put ourselves under, the better the results seem to be.'
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

"Necessity certainly becomes the mother of invention. But curiously, the more pressure we put ourselves under, the better the results seem to be."

Steve is currently spending a lot of time interviewing his mother, Franca, about her cooking in Italy. He is writing a book about her life, and using stories about food and recipes to show the Manfredi family's transition from the north of Italy to Sydney, Australia.

Franca is at the restaurant's stoves most of the week and, at 67, has no thoughts of retirement. She makes the pasta and, in the process, endeavours to pass on all that wonderful expertise to Isabella, her 8-year-old grand-daughter.

Steve and his wife Julie sit down to eat in the restaurant at least once a week with their daughter. Isabella enjoys a glass of wine with her meal, and being allowed to learn from Nonna (her grandmother) in the kitchen.

Franca's mother cooked in a hotel in Milan and also worked for some of the wealthy families in the Villa Nuova area in the north of Italy. Steve hopes that the book he is writing with his mother will demonstrate some of the skills which his grandmother gave her, and which are now passing on through the generations.

Steve remembers his mother's kitchen in Italy.

"I remember a big fire and cauldrons on it, and in winter there would always be a huge soup, a minestrone sort of thing. And in summer, there would be little birds roasting on skewers," he said.

"My grandmother used to cook things like porcupine, really interesting things. In fact, my mother often says that I'm just like her - that I have the same sort of disposition towards cooking that my grandmother had - that anything, and everything, is fair game.

"My mother is a lot more conservative in terms of what she thinks people will want. It's a migrant mentality - you see it a lot in the ethnic restaurants that have grown up here. They think that they need to cook their food, but change it to suit the Australian palate.

"When we first opened here, my mother didn't think that Australians would go for polenta because, in the north of Italy, it was always the base of the poor people's diet, and she didn't think it was a worthwhile thing.

"I think the Italians are the only race on earth that could offer a dish called cooked water - acqua cotta - and still make it delicious."

Steve's food, however, is founded on the abundance of fine ingredients now available in Australia. For him the most important thing is to get the best and most caring providor, supplier

and grower of all the foods he uses. He likes to deal with those who are passionate about their produce.

"But Italian food comes from one of the great peasant cooking cultures. Food like polenta or bruscetta may be very simple, but it has become acceptable in some of our most stylish restaurants.

Steve keeps an eye on the dish his mother Franca, is plating.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Stefano in the garden of Restaurant Manfredi.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

"All we lack are the finest of extra virgin olive oils, or real balsamic vinegar," says Steve.

He speaks of the area around Lago di Trasimeno (Umbria), and its ideal climate and soil for olives. He talks of the extraordinary qualities of the highly prized and very expensive true balsamic vinegar, the product of decades of maturing in different wood barrels, as compared with the caramel flavoured wine vinegar which masquerades under that name here.

When he attended Vin Italy in 1988, Manfredi spent time sourcing olive oils, wines, and other produce for import into Australia. He regards the Italians as the world's finest packagers and marketers of food, matched only by the Japanese. "They have a great sense of how to sell produce, and what produce to sell. Just as they do with their marketing of clothes," he says.

A 1999 interview (and recipes) with Stefano Manfredi. A review of belmondo.

Stefano Manfredi's Recipes

Roast eggplant, peperonata and bocconcini
Warm black lip abalone, shitake and corzetti salad
Sea scallops with bollito of beetroot and onion, anchovy dressing
Squid and mushroom ragu 'under a sheet'
Grilled long - tailed bugs with cannellini beans - olive oil, tomato and saffron rice
Roast suckling Illabo lamb with rosemary and roast potatoes
Goats milk panna cotta with fresh mango and champagne jelly

Mietta O'Donnell
©Mietta's 1996