Chef Stefano de Pieri's marvellous Mildura

Myffy Rigby

Vittoria Coffee Legend Stefano de Pieri

Meet the chef behind Stefano's Cantina in Mildura, Victoria.

 

There's a piece of poetry by Les Murray on the wall at the entrance of Stefano's, part of which reads, "Hey, rose-red city of the tragic fountain, of the expensive brink, of crescent clubs, of flags basil-white-and-tomato, I love how you were invented and turned on: the city as equipment, unpacking its intersections."

That poem, Oasis City, "tells you a lot about the town," says chef and restaurateur, Stefano de Pieri, who has created his own oasis – an award-winning Italian restaurant in a drought-stricken export city on the edge of the Murray Darling.

Stefano de Pieri is the don of Mildura hospitality.
Stefano de Pieri is the don of Mildura hospitality. Photo: Supplied

Cheffing wasn't a first choice for the 63-year-old. In fact, he came to it relatively late in life. De Pieri migrated from the Veneto to Victoria in 1974, with a head full of steam. His first impression of Melbourne was that of absolute freedom and possibility. There was plenty of work, support for migrants and, thanks to Gough Whitlam, free tertiary education.

He studied political science at Melbourne University, edited the Italian newspaper Nuovo Paese, worked in the Victorian public service as a private secretary and ministerial adviser under the Cain government. He even ran for Labor in 1991, and although he lost, he remains sanguine about it.

It was the fork in the road that brought him to Mildura to open Stefano's in the guts of a rundown old pub, the Grand Hotel. "You can't regret. Once you make a move, you make a move. And so we came here, saw the opportunity to reinvent this pub, which needed a lot of love. It's not particularly great now, but it was disastrous then. And as a family business we began putting it back together, somehow."

I think it's the migrant thing, you just keep going. You find another gear and you improvise.

His father in-law had been a porter at the Grand in the 1950s. "As soon as he had a bit of money, he put it down as a deposit and then he said, 'Somehow we'll do it.' And somehow we pulled through. Not without difficulties, hardship, or really scary moments. I think it's the migrant thing, you just keep going. You find another gear and you improvise." 

And he did. Not satisfied with just running an (eventually) extremely successful restaurant, he started filming Gondola on the Murray for the ABC. His grit, drive and determination created a certain restlessness for something more. De Pieri started a writers festival. Made wine. Collected art. Became increasingly hooked into the inner workings of the city he'd made his home.

As a young migrant, the reason you leave a country is to succeed, to make a new life. "That's where you find the extra gear. A lot of migrants came from post-war poverty and unemployment. To look for something more special for your life. The first generation of migrants were driven by economic necessity. I'm driven more by ideas."

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The freedom of finding his own path outside the conservative, Catholic trappings of his Italian upbringing was very appealing to the young de Pieri. "I was a rebellious student. It was the late '60s, early '70s, and there was a lot of foment. Many young people found the government, the policies, the lifestyle, the tradition, a terrible imposition. And we were trying to find a way out of that."

When de Pieri first landed in Mildura he had no intention of making the restaurant he has today – he still shrugs off the idea that it's anything more than a trattoria. "It was never intended," he says. "I came from the public service, not from a cooking background. And I thought this would be an ideal place for wine meetings, cheese, salami. Then it grew into a bowl of spaghetti in 2002, then a soup, then a roast …"

The chef is modest about his success, framing it as right place, right time. "I was riding a wave of change. If you put a bucket of water in the desert, of course something blooms. It's not rocket science. It was just that it was in such a remote area and it took such a supreme effort of the will to get it done. That was the intuition. Simply to reflect what we do here, what we grow."

The restaurant is a warren of old cellars and cool rooms – a hangover from its pub days, when it was the only licensed venue in town. Against all odds, they made it a working restaurant by surrendering to the building and its many quirks. There isn't a straight line in the place. "Why?," says de Pieri. "Nobody knows. No architect, no engineer – no one can explain. I think it was just fun. Because there is no rhyme or reason."

It feels like everywhere and nowhere. The narrow tunnels are lined with bentwood chairs and simple wooden tables, the walls loaded with prints, etchings, and oils, including a piece by an artist friend, Neil Fettling, called Ambiguous Rabbit. "Well, I didn't want it dead, and I didn't want it alive."

There's a black and white photo from the Mildura Writers Festival that de Pieri founded showing a smiling Helen Garner and Les Murray, posing on the steps of an old log cabin. There's a lot of history, told and untold here. They didn't even soundproof the restaurant's ceiling until 2003. "Everything happens slowly, because it's been happening over centuries. We're not a snappy new city restaurant."

When it comes to modern Italian food, Stefano has views. "It is a curiosity. [But] you can't stop progress. If people continued to paint frescoes in the Middle Ages, they would never have moved into the Renaissance. I will always be a trattoria. Why would you come to Mildura to have a desiccated and recomposed lasagne? What's the point?"

The hot head filled with politics hasn't so much dulled, but softened over the years. "You see the futility of being hard. Of being a testa dura. Everything comes to pass – even bad nights and bad moments. You look back and even sometimes the things that were bad then become stories. It's perspective, it's age, it is what it is."

It's been a rich and varied career since de Pieri first hit Australian shores 44 years ago. But he says it's his children who have given him the greatest satisfaction. "They've been such a joy. They're grown up now and we've got a great friendship, I hope. Everything else, it comes and goes. I'm already yesterday's man."

Quickfire corner

After-midnight snack After midnight I'm in bed. But if it's before midnight it's a cup of tea and a little biscuit.

Secret ninja power Optimism of the will and pessimism of the mind.

Music to cook to By myself, ABC Classic FM. With others, I don't care as long as we can hear each other.

Smartest person you know It has to be my older brother, Sergio de Pieri, the musician. He knows how to live fully, optimistically, and sees the humour in things.

Kitchen weapon at work Patience.