I was born into this life of restaurants and cooking, but not by choice. I wasn’t born with a passion to cook. It was never my intention to be a chef. I have no formal training. I ended up having to cook out of necessity, and now that I am a chef I have to do the best I can do.
I learnt to cook from my mother, Giovanna, whose cooking is all I ever knew. All the basics come from her. I taught myself after that. I’m a fast learner and could always pick up things very easily.
Napoli to O Sole Mio…
I was born in Naples, but I arrived in Sydney as a six-month-old baby. My father is from a small town just down from Ascoli on the Adriatic Coast called Grottammare. His mother was a school teacher. My father grew up right next to the beach and he loved the beach his whole life. It was all about the beach. My mother, Giovanna, is 100% Neapolitan. Everything about her is Neapolitan. She is a bit of a snob at heart, to tell the truth. She always believed that she came from the centre of Naples and looked down on other Neapolitans that didn’t come from there. You know how they say the northern Italians look down on the southern Italians? Well, the southern Italians have their own idiosyncrasies, too — they look down on themselves. My grandmother was from Calabria, so I have lot of southern roots, as well as the Adriatic, of course.
My mother has been in restaurants since I was very young. I remember there was a restaurant she had in Edgecliff in the late 1960s called O Sole Mio. It was a beautiful restaurant with views over the harbour. My first memory of cooking is from here. I think I was only 4 or 5 at the time. I remember the kitchen being so enormous, or at least it felt enormous because I was so small. All the people working in the kitchen were so nice to me, always feeding me and giving me treats. Mum had a break from restaurants for a little while she had my brother and sister, then went back to cooking when I was about 13, opening a restaurant in Potts Point called Giovanna’s on the corner of Macleay Street and Rockwall Crescent. (Below: Giovanna and her former business partner, Ettore Prossimo)
The first meal I remember cooking myself was eggs for my father when I was about 10. The only meal he ate at home was breakfast, and usually just on Sundays. Cooking his eggs was a ritual for me, and I looked forward to it every week. Dad liked his fried eggs runny, but the whites had to be cooked — they couldn’t be wet. It was very delicate, a fine timing issue, and I loved every second of it.
In 1979 Mum bought a building up in Potts Point called The Old Vienna Inn. The following year she opened a restaurant in the venue called La Strada. I’m biased, of course, but La Strada was the place to be during the 80s. We had every major superstar, actor and band that would come and eat there whenever they were in town.
I used to go and help mum out after school. Whenever somebody didn’t turn up for work — a dishwasher, kitchen hand or sous chef — I’d go and help. That’s how I learnt to cook.
I worked mainly in the kitchen, but then in the last couple of years helped to run the floor. I was very lucky to have trained under probably two of the best waiters in Australia, if not the world— Ricky Spinelli and Frank Aranda. They both apprenticed as stewards on the big ships of the 50s and 60s, which was the best training you could have at the time. Ricky is still alive — he’d be about 85 now. He started training me when I was 16. He taught me the the old-style silver service, which were typical of high class establishments then. You’d have your little trolley with a gas top and we’d go to the table with the trolley. There’d be a waiter in a tuxedo and we’d cook the dish to order at the customer’s table. We used to make crepes suzettes and steak diane, strawberry flambé and caesar salad. I was taught how to serve customers, carry plates, pour wine and cook.
In the mid-80s there was an upheaval in the family: Dad got sick and Mum had to look after him. Sometimes I’d replace Mum at La Strada and cook for the restaurant. I was probably 19-21 at the time. Dad then died when I was 22. La Strada continued, of course, but the family kind of dispersed. My mother wanted to bring the family back together, so she bought this restaurant in the city — Kingfish Seafood Cafe.
I was working in a fashion house in Surry Hills and one day Mum just arrived, handed me a set of key and said, “Paola, go build it then open it.” That was Machiavelli restaurant. It was June 1988. In the space of six weeks I had the place stripped, painted and by August 28 we’d opened.
When we opened Machiavelli in the city (pictured below, image courtesy of Daily Telegraph) there weren’t that many high-end restaurants in the vicinity back then. There was the San Francisco Grill at the Hilton, the French Edna’s Table and Rockpool… maybe 6 in total. We therefore opened with a bang. I was actually never meant to be cooking in the kitchen at Machiavelli; my role was to run the floor. The first day we had 200 customers and Mum couldn’t cope wth it. She just couldn’t get it together. It was all too much at once because she’d been used to having small restaurants, like the 60-seater La Strada.
The menu was wrong, the whole structure was wrong, so after two days I said to her, “That’s it, it’s not working. It’s too much of a mess. We need to change it.” The very next day I went into Machiavelli’s kitchen to cook. It takes an analytical type of brain to cook for that many people in a small area… how to cook for 5 or 6 tables a time and pair them up so the meals could go out at the same time. I guess I could just better visualise how to get the food out. Mum went to the antipasto table, a big table in the middle of the room. All the cold entrees came from this table. That was more Mum’s thing; she could get all the antipasti together. My sister, Caterina, ran the floor.
It was all a bit up in the air like that. We just played it by ear and finally got it all working properly and never looked back. For 30 years it was a very successful restaurant. It was, however, stressful working with family, so I left in 2002 to pursue other avenues and different careers.
Our family’s cooking style is very simple cooking, and I mean that in a respectful way. I remember coming from home from school as a child and my mother would throw together a 3-course, 4-course, 10-course meal in a matter of minutes. She would just throw everything in the pots and pans and it would come flying out of the kitchen: meat, fish, pasta, salads, vegetables… an abundance of vegetables always. It would all come out very quickly.
When you think about the Neapolitan word sciue sciue… it’s a real term. It means ‘quick, quick’, but it’s more then that. It’s about giving everything to make something out of nothing. The Neapolitan mother would come home from work and she’ll look in the cupboard and whatever she found she would throw together sciue sciue and you’ll have this amazing meal. It doesn’t matter how poor people are or how little they have in the cupboard, they’ll always find a way to have this amazing meal.
I hadn’t ever heard of sciue sciue when I was young. It was only later, in 2015 when I opened Sciue Sciue restaurant in Double Bay (pictured below, image courtesy of Broadsheet), that I came across it. I was telling Mum that I wanted to do a dish that’s different. In the late 80s at Machiavelli I had created the dish ‘spaghetti Machiavelli’. I had to come up with a dish that was synonymous with this new restaurant, so I invented this dish with butter and mushrooms and prawns and basil.
Later, in 2015, I said to Mum that I want to do the same thing for Double Bay, but I didn’t want to use those same ingredients. I wanted to do something different. I said that I wanted to use fresh tomatoes, basil, oil, garlic and chilli, and she said, “Well, that’s just sciue sciue.” “Perfect,” I said, “because that’s going to be my new dish”. The way that I made it different to normal sciue sciue is that I added prawns, because normal sciue sciue doesn’t have them. It’s just beautiful tomatoes from Italy with basil, garlic, chilli and you toss it.
I’ve only ever known my mother’s type of cooking. I’ve learned new dishes and studied myself, but all the basics come from her. The flavours are still from the same base, even the new flavours I create. However, it’s what you add to it. For example, I have a traditional bolognese, and I have what I call my summer bolognese: no more red sauce, just a few cherry tomatoes with garlic, chilli and basil. You can still have the same base, you just tweak it slightly to give it that difference.
Cooking at Bar M has to be of-the-moment. All our sauces are made to order. The marinara sauce is made to order and we put the seafood in at the end. It’s very Neapolitan cooking. The only thing we cook in advance is the ragu and bolognese, because they sit long in a slow cooking process.
For me cooking it’s not all about the taste, there has to be a visual aspect. I like bringing colour to dishes to liven up the plate. It also needs to enhance the favour, of course. Abbondanza is important — abundance. An abundance of everything. Abbondanza is such a great word… it makes you feel full when you say it. I always teach my chefs that abbondnza also means that when you give something you have to give it with your heart.
Nothing we make at Bar M is what I’d classify as small, so it’s easier to share. That’s where abbondanza also comes in to it. Take our spaghetti scampi. A lot of restaurants will make spaghetti scampi with one scampo. What’s the point? You can’t even get the flavour out of one to make the sauce. It’s an expensive dish here at Bar M, but you’re going to get five scampi on the dish. I don’t ever want anyone to sit in my restaurant and say “I haven’t had enough.” A plate of my pasta has never been called into question. Except from my mother. She always wants more, even though she’s not allowed to have it!
My approach to produce and ingredients is simple: fresh is best, as well as being sourced and produced sustainably and with ethics. I hate caged eggs and battery hens, and I’m the worst chef in the world when it comes to meats and stuff. I don’t do venison or a lot of game, pheasants etc. I can’t kill a lobster while it’s still alive; I have to freeze it first. One day I had a series of rabbits lined on the wall at Sciue Sciue Double Bay to make a rabbit ragu. I was crying by the end of service, because it looked like I was cutting up little cats. It’s a really strange thing for a chef to say, I know. I don’t mind it when it’s cut up into little pieces; I just don’t want to cut up the whole animal.
Click the links below to read more morsels from Paola’s kitchen…