Family has always been at the centre of Italian cooking. Whether it is a relaxed alfresco lunch or a communal effort to hand-shape tortelli on Christmas day, most Italians will attest to the pivotal role played by their mother or nonna (grandmother) when it comes to the cucina.
And Italy, with its decadent white truffles, delicious grappa and excellent seafood, rouses an intrinsic food sensibility, breathed into children before they’ve even learned their times tables.
“I come from a family where my mother made everything at home,” recalls Italian-born Stefano Manfredi, sinking into a chair at the bar of his acclaimed Killcare restaurant, Manfredi at Bells, on New South Wales’ Central Coast.
“She would cook our traditional dishes and I guess I picked up cooking by osmosis, hanging around the kitchen, stealing bits of pasta and raw gnocchi. I used to love that sort of thing.”
Deviating from his first career as a teacher, Manfredi’s foray into the restaurant industry began three decades ago at a vegetarian restaurant in North Bondi. From there, he would spearhead a handful of Sydney’s leading eateries during the 70s and 80s before delivering on a lifetime vision of bringing the food of his mother to the restaurant table.
In 1983, Manfredi opened his first restaurant (aptly named The Restaurant), his mamma by his side in the kitchen and his then-wife and business partner Julie working front of house.
“What we were doing back then was fairly different in terms of what people’s idea of Italian food was,” he says.
Bel Mondo in The Rocks would follow, before he took over the onsite restaurant at the boutique luxury hotel, Bells at Killcare some years later – sans mum this time.
“Twenty years – it’s enough. I love her but I defy anyone to work with their mother at close range with sharp knives and hot things for 20 years. But she’s a wonderful cook – she’s in her mid 80s and still cooks today.”
Recently, Manfredi opened his newest restaurant, the fine dining Osteria Balla in The Star’s ritzy casino complex in Sydney.
“We had some Americans come into Balla the other day and they wanted Chicken Alfredo,” he says. “We don’t have chicken and we don’t do Alfredo because it’s not really Italian. You really want to make people happy but sometimes you just can’t physically do it, because there is no chicken on the property, for instance.”
The topic of the feathered fowl sparks a minor aside into what Manfredi describes as a national chicken quandary.
“It’s one of the lowest quality meats in Australia,” he explains. “Because it’s the most popular (we eat more chicken here than any other meat) and to produce it they have to intensely farm it, this means there are problems with it. You’re better off eating duck or lamb or quail or something.”
Although he’s widely regarded as being instrumental in the rise of modern Italian cuisine in Australia, from helming the introduction of table bread and olive oil in restaurants to initiating the harmonious marriage of butter and sage, Manfredi is quick to temper any grandiose labels pinned to him, such as “visionary”.
“What we did was what we knew in our family and [what] was happening on our family table,” he explains. “We always had bread and good extra virgin olive oil and also vegetables you would dip into the olive oil, like raw fennel and carrots.
“So it’s interesting because those things were taken up by Australians very readily. When they get onto something, they take it up with gusto and it’s great to see that.”
The surrounding gardens at Bells offer the chef an abundance of onsite produce to work with. Among the finger lime, mango and avocado trees, a vege patch yields Italian chillis, chard and other greens, while a happy flock of chickens cluck noisily as they roam freely, protected from prey by the friendly Bells maremma (a Tuscan sheep dog). The chickens provide Bells’ guests with barn-laid eggs for breakfast each day, which raises another critical aspect for Manfredi: provenance.
“When my mother and grandmother would cook in Italy they knew exactly where everything came from because it was grown very close by,” he says.
“Being in Australia naturally influences your food. The further you are from the source, the more you have to adapt. Your primary produce is very important: a simple thing like potatoes for making gnocchi for instance – they’re different here so it affects what the gnocchi tastes like.”
Less than one kilometre from the beach, Bells, with its manicured green lawns and signature blue and white awnings is an idyllic weekend escape.
Luxury cabins, villas and suites are scattered around the bushy surrounds, but the property’s owner, Australian advertising and racing entrepreneur John Singleton – a longtime friend of Manfredi’s – has recently bought up the adjacent property with hopes of expanding.
“With that expansion comes the challenge of keeping the boutique quality,” says Manfredi. “But I think the physical nature of the property is such that it doesn’t look like a massive development.”
An Italian Christmas
Christmas has been a staple event in Manfredi’s restaurants since his first restaurant opened, with Christmas lunch booking out months in advance. But when it comes to the Manfredi family’s own Christmas celebrations, it’s about “abundance,” according to the chef.
“It’s always eating too much and drinking lots of good wine. It’s funny – I’ve never seen my family or relatives drunk. The closest you ever got was Christmas. I don’t know, there seems to be different relationships with Italians and wine than Australians and wine. I think it’s cultural once again – it’s how we have grown up.
“My father is 90 and even today he has a coffee in the morning and a shot of grappa and then he won’t touch grappa again all day. He enjoys it but he doesn’t overdo it.”
While some families may pass down a fruit pudding recipe from one generation to the next, it’s pumpkin tortelli with burnt butter that the chef cites as “part of my family’s Christmas tradition”.
The tortelli he refers to commands a day-long production line and is brimming with regional flavours such as mustard fruits and amaretto. The recipe originates from Gottolengo, a town in Italy’s Lombardy region where Manfredi was born.
Thirty years in the game begs the question of highlights, but it doesn’t yield the food-related reminisces that I was anticipating.
“The birth of my daughter, who came four years after we opened our first restaurant, is the great joy of my life,” he declares. His daughter is Isabella Manfredi, a member of Australian pop rock outfit The Preatures, a topic that sparks a whole new zeal in the chef; when he isn’t cooking, Manfredi is a passionate gig-going muso.
“In terms of career highlights, my work as a longstanding food columnist and cookbook writer has really delighted me. But I think how long I’ve survived has been most surprising – the longevity of my career is probably the biggest joy.”
Glancing at the long communal table, where Manfredi’s extended Bells “family” are enjoying lunch with their good friend, it’s evident the last 30 years have been more about people than praise for this chef.