IMAGINE shuffling out to your garden — pyjamas rumpled, newspaper and coffee in hand — to find it full of people. "Maybe I'm crazy?" laughs Stella Maurici, who, with husband Sam, has just opened a cafe in her backyard.
Stella and Sam were born in the same Italian town — San Martino in Calabria — but it took 19 years and a cousin's wedding before they met in Melbourne, fell in love and became engaged.
In 1971, Sam bought his dad's place in Young Street, just a skip away from Puckle Street in a much sleepier Moonee Ponds. It's the family home and now it's home to Garden Tuscany.
There was a two-year bureaucratic battle with the council to finalise the permit but six weeks ago, the cafe opened down a cobbled back lane complete with a graffiti wall by artist Jasper Killick.
The youngest Maurici, Lance, is the barista and Ricki, who flew from London for the opening, created the cafe's website.
I want to harp on about "the fitout". But there isn't one. "This was our garden," says Stella, of the Tuscan-inspired courtyard that's hosted umpteen gatherings over the years. And it's a stunner, full of lush evergreens with a series of nooks and decking, fronds of hanging greenery and deep pink and red geraniums in terracotta pots.
Stella's pride and joy is the gnarled fig. There's a lemon, a cumquat, a "bloody orange" as she calls it, herbs and the wood-fired oven — the homely centrepiece the Mauricis made for their daughter's wedding.
All that was needed was tables — heavy wrought-iron numbers with mosaic tops — a coffee machine and a glass cabinet to house Stella's homemade chocolates.
"If the counter is half empty, it means I've had a bad night," she laughs, adding that every second day she tries to do a batch of scones, served with strawberry jam and cream.
On the food front, it's simple. Pizzas — the chewy bases are thin and not too bready — have toppings such as rosemary-flavoured rounds of potato with garlicky homemade pesto. Or the salsiccia, spicy sausage with capsicum, napoli, oregano and a smattering of fior di latte cheese. They're not the best pizzas you'll ever eat but they're not trying to be — this is home-style food with lashings of hospitality.
The caprese salad is a generous bowl of milky white bocconcini, chunky tomato, good olives and basil.
For dessert, there's chocolate mousse or ice-cream in a waffle cone with shavings of chocolate, or you could go a hot chocolate, made with couverture and laced with ground chilli.
Children are welcome and Stella encourages them to lick the bowl of melted chocolate that comes with the churros. It's all part of the family vibe.
"This garden isn't really ours," says Stella philosophically, "we're all just generations passing through."
- 03 9375 2896
- Prices - Pizzas, $10-$12; salads, $7, desserts, $2.90-$10.50
- Opening Hours - Thursday - Friday 5:30pm - 9:30pm (for dinner) Saturday 11:00am - 3:00pm (for lunch) * amended hours late 2012
- Author - Nina Rousseau