Meet the Fuscaldo family whose long and storied history of bringing Italian food to Australia stretches back to the 1960s when they opened the first fresh pasta shop in Melbourne. Sarah Thomas reports
There is a very amusing Twitter account named Italians Mad at Food (@italiancomments), which brings together outraged comments from across the internet about classic Italian dishes that have been warped or adapted. The passionate fury over abominations, such as sauces made with heavy cream or putting pasta into cold not boiling water, is as commendable as it is hilarious, and perfectly sums up how important authenticity is to the national dishes.
It’s this level of authenticity that underpins the story of the Fuscaldos, who for decades have been spreading genuine Italian tastes across Australia. Today the family runs four venues across Sydney, including the recently opened Vizio Caffè e Cucina in Woolloomooloo, and the iconic Portobello Caffe in Circular Quay. It operates under Alessandro Fuscaldo, 54, with his brother David, 60, looking after the supply side of the business, and Alessandro’s son-in-law Matia Zoffoli and daughter Katia heading Vizio (although Katia has currently taken a step back to look after their two young children).
The early days
The family story in Australia goes back to the 1950s and the hunt for authentic Italian food. As migrants from Rome, Giovanni, a plumber, and Lucia Fuscaldo, a tailor, settled in Melbourne, where a surprising second business emerged, triggered by the Italian community, desperate for tastes of home.
“A lot of the Italians found out that Mum was a pretty good cook,” says Alessandro. “They would say to her, ‘Look, if we pay you, would you make us some pasta, because we can’t buy it.’”
And so Lucia embarked in a side business, making food for all the Italians by hand. To paint a picture of how extreme the hunt for sorely missed staples was, the community turned to some pretty ingenious measures.
“One of the craziest stories that Dad told me,” says Alessandro, “was that to get olive oil, they’d all pretend that they were sick, and they’d go to the pharmacy and the pharmacy would give them 50ml of olive oil for medicinal purposes. They’d all be going there, buying a bit of oil, and then bringing it home to use on their salads and pasta.”
Contraband olive oil aside, what kicked off for Lucia was a mini-empire of making fresh handmade pasta and sauces from the family home between 1956 and 1964. The family, now with sons David and Alessandro, returned briefly to Italy but found conditions even harder after the war and so came back to Australia after a year. But they also made the astute step to get shipped out a commercial fresh pasta machine—the first to arrive in Australia—and opened a shop, Italian Ravoli and Tortellini, on Sydney Road in Brunswick, Melbourne. While Giovanni was by now working for Lend Lease as a construction manager, Lucia’s simple pasta business was booming.
What happened next was that the Fuscaldos were approached by another set of local Italian entrepreneurs, John and Sisto Ubaldi and Tony Bocchi, who were running an ice-cream and gelato business. They suggested they join forces and Everest Foods was born, with Lucia taking on the role of production manager as the business continued to grow and expand, including launching frozen pizzas, distributed all across Australia with an annual turnover of $5–$7 million.
By 1985, the ice-cream side had been sold to Streets and the pasta side sold to Kraft Foods. By this time, David and Alessandro had been involved in the distribution of Everest Foods, as well as another business of distributing goods including pastas, garlic paste, prosciutto and gelato under Suprema Foods, a business they later sold in 1994.
“I just think we’ve kept our original beautiful morals that our family—our parents—have taught us. If you treat people well and fair, it’ll enrich you. And it’s fun. It really is.”—Alessandro Fuscaldo, co-owner, Vizio Caffe e Cucina
With both brothers now in Sydney, and Everest off-loaded, they sought new ventures, and when in 1987 the tender came up for the Portobello Caffe at Circular Quay, just under the shadow of the Opera House, it was the perfect opportunity for a small family business to take over. A mere 5m-by-3m kiosk at one of the most prime real-estate spots in the country, the business offered quick turnaround coffee, sandwiches and ice-cream for the busy passing tourist trade.
The business expanded to bring in a stove and tables and chairs (it now seats 75). On top of that they picked up the business for the Opera House in-house green-room catering, which they ran 2002 to ’12.
After that, new opportunities came up at Sydney Westfield in Pitt Street Mall, where the hunt was on for an authentic Italian presence into its food court. The family opened Ragù Pasta & Wine Bar and dessert bar Via del Corso, with everything designed in Italy after scouting ice-cream and food trade fairs there.
After discovering Corian solid surfaces, Alessandro designed a striking centrepiece cabinet. He used a company called Bocchini, which he says is the “Rolls Royce of Italian equipment” and designed everything out of Italy and got it shipped over.
By this stage, Matia, who hails from Cesenatico, was travelling in Australia and entered the Fuscaldo fold first as a barista, and then after stints running Via del Corso and Portobello, launched Vizio with Katia a year ago.
“We argue a lot,” says Alessandro, jovially, of the perils of working in a family business. “It only dawned on me about six months after we opened that I was trying to produce the type of food that Matia ate everyday of his life back in Italy. What I try to do in the kitchen is give that authenticity back to Australia.
“So, his attitude was, ‘Hey, that’s what we do but I want to do it with a twist’, where I’ve insisted, ‘No, I want to make it as authentic as I can’.
“And so we were at different levels, which caused us to argue a lot. And thankfully, I suppose because we are family, we’re still here today.”
And Matia adds: “And you only argue because you care about what you serve.”
“From the day we started Portobello to Vizio now 31 years later, nothing’s really changed. It’s just about giving people an exciting experience, whether it’s a cup of coffee to creating an authentic Italian dish and watching their expressions.”—Alessandro Fuscaldo, co-owner, Vizio Caffe e Cucina
The 67-seater venue also serves as a production kitchen for creating elements such as the bolognaise sauce used across all its venues.
The business is thriving, although the recent changes to visa requirements have impacted the ability to recruit and keep quality staff. Alessandro says the wave of international chefs and hospitality workers sustained a freshness and authenticity to standards.
“It was just wonderful to get a breath of fresh air of new chefs,” he says. “Young, 20- and 30-year-olds, challenging themselves like our parents did in the fifties and sixties and coming out here. The downside is the government now has closed that door on their visas. It’s very, very difficult.”
In terms of future expansion, Alessandro says they’re often approached by developers. “Matia has a tendency to want to do something a little more upmarket,” he says. “So we’ve just got to ground ourselves [at Vizio] and that’s where we’d look at giving high quality at a reasonable price. He’s got some different ideas and hopefully we can do it together.”
The magic ingredient
The secret to the family success, Alessandro says, is remaining true to their values. “I just think we’ve kept our original beautiful morals that our family—our parents—have taught us. If you treat people well and fair it’ll enrich you. And it’s fun. It really is.
“From the day we started Portobello to Vizio now 31 years later, nothing’s really changed. It’s just about giving people an exciting experience, whether it’s a cup of coffee to creating an authentic Italian dish and watching their expressions. And when they compare it to what they’ve had back in Italy and they say it’s good, that makes it rewarding.”
They even gained the approval of Lucia’s Italian palate when she visited and dined on gnocchi at Vizio recently, which was a nerve-racking experience for the family.
“We all got our food and we’re all waiting for the reaction, and the wonderful thing was she turned around to my wife [Sonia] and said, ‘This is good’. And she finished the whole bowl. Taking her home, I said, ‘Mum, what did you think, how did you rate us?’ And she said ‘It was really, really good’.”
For Matia, it’s all about the personal touch. “The key is treating people as if they were coming into your home,” he says. “We love what we do,” adds Alessandro. “We just work hard and if you love making people happy, you do get an amazing reward from that. And that comes back to you in return patronage.”