Marc Polese and father Beppi Polese at their landmark Sydney restaurant Beppi's in 2014.
Marc Polese and father Beppi Polese at their landmark Sydney restaurant Beppi's in 2014. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams

Damien Murphy

Beppi​ Polese, who helped stoke Sydney's long love affair with Italian food, has died on the eve of his Yurong​ Street restaurant's 60th anniversary.

He passed away on Tuesday, aged 90, after a short illness.

Trained in the grand restaurants of Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome, Polese migrated after working among Italian partisans during World War II.

He was one of about 400,000 Italians who arrived between the late 1940s and late '60s, leading Australia into a multicultural era.

Polese, along with Lucio Galletto and Armando Percuoco became the primi​, secondi​ and dolciof Italian restaurateurs and changed Sydney's eating habits forever.

On June 12, 1956, Polese and his wife Norma opened Beppi's and continued serving his signature angel-hair pasta and vitello tonnato to four generations of Sydney diners.

In a statement, his family said what mattered to Polese was food, family and friends, and his restaurant was his gift to Sydney.

"At the restaurant he so lovingly built and the clientele he so loyally served, Beppi Polese was a great man; exceptional yet humble, traditional yet refined," the statement said.

"He has served everyone from sitting prime ministers to Hollywood and rock royalty."

His son Marc will step into his father's shoes at Beppi's.

Fellow countryman Lucio Galletto arrived in Sydney in 1976, a time when Beppi's was acknowledged as the best Italian restaurant in Sydney, if not Australia.

Galletto, who opened his own restaurant, Lucio's, in 1981, paid tribute to Polese, saying: "A true professional and innovator of our industry who was respected and admired by Italians and non-Italians. We will miss him greatly and thank him for what he did for Italian hospitality in Sydney."

Food author John Newton co-authored Beppi: A Life in Three Courses, receiving a favourable review in the Herald for its depiction of a colourful life: "The dramatic wartime adventures are riveting. Equally engaging are Polese's accounts of village meals, food rituals, the occasional feast and a collection of personal, waste-nothing recipes, including several peasant methods of preparing polenta, his staple childhood meal." 

Journalist David Dale won the 1983 Walkley Award for feature writing with his story The Italian Waiter Conspiracy, which portrayed Beppi as the prime mover in the rise of Italian food in Sydney.

"He was a true pioneer," Dale said. "A hard task-master, a perfectionist. When I interviewed him, the first thing he wanted to know was what other restaurateurs thought about him: 'Did they say I was a bastard?'. I could but agree."

Years later, Beppi told Dale about his younger days in a restaurant in Florence, around 1949, when he sliced up a whole fish at a customer's table.

"I cut it across instead of along," Beppi said. "The head waiter came up and said, in front of everyone, 'Who did this?' I felt like a little boy in school. I said it was me. He said: 'This is not the work of a waiter. This is the work of a bricklayer'."

Some bricklayer.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story has been amended to correctly name the co-author of Beppi: A Life in Three Courses, and give some additional details about the book.