There are rule breakers and taste makers and then there's Maurice Terzini: an enigma wrapped in a pair of drop crotch pants, the king of Bondi and the restaurateur who successfully helped shape new-style Italian in Melbourne in the early '90s through his uncompromising approach to dining.
During his 30 years in the trade, he's had 18 businesses across Sydney and Melbourne. He's collaborated with DJs and musicians, artists and designers. He's also been flat broke at the height of his career, going from managing six businesses – including the world-famous Icebergs – and 300 employees to living in a tiny flat, getting up at the crack of dawn every day to wait tables just to keep his head above water.
But before all that, he was a 16-year-old packing shelves and mopping up spills in the fruit aisle at his local Safeway.
It was waiting tables at the Black Cat, a bar and club in Fitzroy that still operates today, that really changed his career. "The Black Cat taught me all about detail and design and music and vibe," says Terzini. "[Owner and frontman] Henry Maas was the master of vibe."
Working for Mario Maccarone and Mario de Pasquale at Fitzroy's legendary all-day Italian cafe Mario's, really shaped who Terzini is a restaurateur. "All the waiters that were on the floor had come from formal training," he says. "Everyone was so proud to be on the floor. It was like a social gathering. An artistic and music community. And it really made me proud of who I was and what I was doing."
After leaving Mario's, Terzini floated between a few of the city's more traditional Italian restaurants, but after his time working with the fashionable and free-flowing Maas, Maccarone and de Pasquale, none of them were a great fit for the young waiter.
'I really f---ing hit rock bottom. I was literally living in a $50-a-night apartment.'Maurice Terzini
Disappointed with the reflection of Italian culture in Australia, Terzini was always looking for that element of rebellion he and his parents saw in Italy during the '70s. "It was the rise of socialism in Italy. Rebellion against the church. Hippies. Dope. Art. Disco music. You name it. And we were a little bit out there," Terzini says. "It was a very avant garde community."
During that era, the Terzini family oscillated between Australia and Italy, moving back and forth several times over nine years, his parents never quite assimilating in Melbourne or the Abruzzo. "Coming back to a very conservative Italian community was quite a shock."
In 1988, just shy of his 23rd birthday, Terzini opened Caffe e Cucina in Melbourne's South Yarra with his business partner Maria Echevarria-Lang. They had $2000 to invest between them to get the doors open. "We had one-ply roll up napkins," says Terzini. "We had no till. It was all verbal. When I look back at it, it was actually quite fun."
It was also a clear shot at the establishment. "Well, not everyone really appreciated what we did, you know? We weren't necessarily arrogant but we were vocal about what we did," says Terzini. "I think we really shaped the coffee scene. We refused to do mixed pastas. We had Coltrane on the radio. It was all about art and the scene, and fashion."
Ever restless, he opened Melbourne Wine Room in 1996 with the late, legendary Donlevy Fitzpatrick. "I think the Melbourne Wine Room was probably the most influential venue that I've opened. It was just going to another level. I was starting to work with people like Karen Martini, who was peaking in her restaurant career," says Terzini.
"To have the opportunity to work with Don was ... he was very important in my life. He taught me that sometimes knowledge can kill us. Or at least can interfere with the experience. He used to say to me, 'I really don't care where it comes from. I just want to know if it's good or bad'."
Running both the Melbourne Wine Room and Cucina began taking its toll on Terzini, who was working 19-hour days and hadn't had a break in six years. It was a steep curve, learning as he worked, armed with a lot of raw talent but little to no formal training. In 1998, Terzini sold up. By 2000, he'd moved out of Melbourne and had opened Otto Ristorante on Woolloomooloo Wharf in Sydney.
But it was Icebergs, now the crown jewel in the Terzini empire, that made the big waves when he finally managed to get the doors open in 2002. He was facing a tough, delayed build, a tight brief and a cynical Sydney audience. Not to mention the fact his investors (including restaurateur Bill Granger) were dropping like flies. Still, he lured Martini from Melbourne to work as his head chef, along with Robert Marchetti, who would eventually become his business partner.
Soon enough, that glass box sitting above Bondi Beach and Icebergs pool became one of the hardest restaurants in Sydney at which to secure a booking. Over the years, Terzini would pull stunts like emptying out the entire seawater pool below for Fashion Week. One New Year's Eve, he turned it into a dancefloor where the likes of Paris Hilton (at peak fame) would dance in the dawn. "As someone once said, 'you go to Rockpool to do the deal, and you come to the Icebergs to celebrate'," says Terzini.
To this day, running Icebergs is a little like owning a luxury vintage car – a labour of love involving intense, constant upkeep (the build-up of sea salt on the louvred windows is so thick some days, they're completely opaque) that's costly for everyone. But hey, Terzini says, "if you want to sit on the ocean, everyone has to pay for it".
In 2005, Terzini opened North Bondi Italian Food alongside Marchetti, at the opposite end of the famed beach. It was the tanned young cousin of Icebergs, where locals would slope into the restaurant in swimwear and thongs, sucking down Campari and grapefruit juice. It very quickly became Bondi's unofficial second lounge room. Other venues followed, including Giuseppe, Arnaldo and Sons at Melbourne's Crown Casino.
But it was the short-lived Neild Avenue, when Terzini and Marchetti started moving apart. "It got to the point that we were just both listening to different music and wanted to do different things."
The separation was devastating for Terzini. "That was 20 years of being in the industry, financially down the drain," he says. "I think we were just a little bit too stretched. You know, we had 300 to 400 staff back then across six businesses. We weren't necessarily the biggest [restaurant] group in Sydney. But, we weren't the smallest group. What we thought was going to be an easy split ended up being a bit of a nightmare."
In the end, Terzini was left with what he originally started with in Sydney: Icebergs. Stripped of nearly everything he'd worked to create, the restaurateur did the only thing he knew how to do: brushed himself off and went back to work. "I really f---ing hit rock bottom. I was literally living in a $50-a-night apartment, after that, for 2½ years just to keep Icebergs alive. I was here every morning at six o'clock in the morning and did 4½ years back on the floor. Every day."
Today, the restaurateur has built up his corner once more. The army of Terzini includes Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta (Bondi); Da Maria (Bali); the Dolphin (Surry Hills); Icebergs (Bondi); Bondi Beach Public Bar (Bondi); his own gin label (Goldy), and rumoured irons in the fire in Melbourne and Los Angeles.
The Lazarus of Australian dining rises. And seemingly, keeps rising.