Cecconi's owner-chef Olimpia Bortolotto hands over to granddaughter

Cecconi's restaurant founder Olimpia Bortolotto (right) with her granddaughter Nicoletta Sylvester.
Cecconi's restaurant founder Olimpia Bortolotto (right) with her granddaughter Nicoletta Sylvester. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

 Olimpia Bortolotto shudders at the mention of "retirement". "I can't stand that word," says the Italian matriarch behind Melbourne basement restaurant Cecconi's. "I'll still be coming in. I can't imagine my life without a restaurant. Being busy has kept me young, and as you get older, you need it more than ever." 

Now 80, the woman whose eye for detail and appetite for hard work earned her the nickname Mother Superior, says she's proud to be handing over some responsibilities to her granddaughter, Nicoletta Sylvester, who has literally grown up in the family business.

One of Sylvester's earliest memories is of watching the chefs at work in the kitchen at Bortolotto's in St Kilda from her booster seat, and as soon as she was old enough, she was put to work polishing cutlery and making gnocchi.

Roasted beetroot gnocchi, baby beets, leek, goat's cheese at Cecconi's, Melbourne.
Roasted beetroot gnocchi, baby beets, leek, goat's cheese at Cecconi's, Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

Sylvester and her twin sister Adriana worked front-of-house when the family opened Cecconi's at Crown in 1998, and moved with the restaurant to Flinders Lane in 2006.

"Because it was a family business it never really seemed like hard work," says Sylvester, 34. "It seemed like fun. Obviously we worked long hours but it was rewarding."

Bortolotto's daughters Maria and Anna (Sylvester's mother) are directors at Cecconi's, and no one will be surprised if Sylvester's three-year-old son, Joss, becomes the fourth generation to lend a hand at the restaurant, which has a hat in the current Age Good Food Guide.

"He's such an Italian," his nonna says. "He already knows the difference between good pasta and bad pasta."

Sylvester's goal for Cecconi's is simple: "To see it continue. This is our family's life's work."