It was a sad week for Melbourne last week, when Sisto Malaspina, co-owner of Pellegrini’s Cafe in Bourke Street, was buried at a grand state funeral. He had been stabbed 10 days earlier when he went to see a burning car in Bourke Street and was attacked by the driver. https://soundcloud.com/travelwritersradio/rita-erlichs-tribute-to-terror-victim-sisto-malaspina-bon-vivant-of-pellegrinis-melbourne
Only a few doors away is Grossi Florentino, which last week celebrated its 90th anniversary.
That makes it the oldest continuous restaurant in the city of Melbourne. Rather more remarkably, the number of owners can be counted on the fingers of one hand – well, nearly.
The story starts more than 90 years ago, in fact. It starts in 1918 when Samuel Wynn bought the Colonial Wine Bar from a French couple called Moureau. Samuel Wynn, who came from Poland in 1913 and whose name was originally Weintraub, which means grape, fittingly enough, since he went on to establish Wynn’s in Coonawarra. But in 1918, he was simply a wine merchant, which was a good reason to buy a wine bar. One of his main customers was a restaurant round the corner, the Café Denat, and the owners offered him the restaurant because Calixte Denat was ill. He bought the restaurant and transferred it to the rooms above the wine bar. In 1922, Samuel Wynn became a wholesaler.
The Florentino started in 1928 when Samuel Wynn met Rinaldo Massoni, who became the manager and then the owner. Massoni was, by the way, the nephew of Calixte Denat. We’ve got a small cast, really. It was Massoni who called the place Florentino – which isn’t an Italian word really, but let’s not quibble, and he changed the cooking style from French to Italian, and that’s where it’s been for 90 years.
Massoni died in 1941, and the restaurant was taken over by his son Leon (who later planted a vineyard – do we detect a theme here?) ) who went into partnership with a man called George Tsindos, who had been a waiter at the restaurant. Tsindos took it over in 1963.
There is where I come in, because my mother used to take me to the downstairs Bistro Grill during school holidays on Thursdays, when lasagne was the dish of the day. She loved lasagne for a couple of reasons – one of them being that she hadn’t cooked it, and because it was good, and the waiters made a small and welcome fuss of us.
And I came in again and again – later, I reviewed Florentino through successive chefs and owners. It was very stuffy for a while. Men had to wear jackets and ties – even when the temperature soared. I remember asking a friend to join me for dinner one time when I was reviewing the place, and then I had to ring him back to check if he had a tie. Women were given menus without prices. And wines were always presented to the man at the table, even if the woman had ordered it. I did get a bit cross sometimes.
A man called Branco bought the restaurant from Tsindos in 1979. Ten years later he sold it to a showy racehorse owner called Floyd Podgornik. There was a great to-do when he acquired it because there were fears he would gut the place. But he restored the restaurant rather beautifully – clean and gleaming, with gold leaf detailing on the ceiling and wonderful glasses and Ginori plates. I remember how fresh it looked. But one night I was there, sitting next to a table of people who were celebrating something or other, as they clearly had for years. The father of the group looked around suspiciously. ‘’I heard someone had taken over the place,” he grumbled. “Heard he was planning things.” He looked around. “Well, nothing’s changed. That’s good.” We see what we expect to see.
When Floyd died, there was a much publicised tussle between his girlfriend and estranged wife. In the end, his widow Lorraine took it over. The place was in turmoil for a bit, but the waiters carried on admirably. They, after all, knew all the regulars, what they liked to eat, what they wanted to drink, and when.
When it was all running smoothly again, Lorraine Podgornik felt she had had enough of the demands of restaurant life. She spoke to the Grossi family, who had a number of successful restaurants, and she used to eat at one of them, Caffe Grossi, when she wasn’t at Florentino. We must add to the complex network of connections – Pietro Grossi, the father, had worked at Florentino and had been co-owner of a restaurant in St Kilda owned by Leon Massoni. Guy Grossi and his wife Melissa had bought their first restaurant in 1987, sold it and acquired others one by one. They were family businesses: Pietro, Guy and his wife, Elizabeth and her husband.
All this time, as a food writer and restaurant reviewer, I had been observing the changes. Florentino had the standing of an institution. Yes, we all know the joke – who wants to eat in an institution? The answer: lots of lots of people, over the decades.
In 1999 the Grossi family took over Florentino. They sold all their other ventures and concentrated on turning Florentino into the restaurant they wanted it to be. Guy’s sister Elizabeth remembers it was all-consuming for the first two years, and she says that there was so much to do in the first few months they scarcely slept. ‘’It was like being jet-lagged for three months,” she told me.
The Grossi family has done an astonishing amount. The upstairs has been remodelled, although very carefully, and with due respect to the interior and the Napier Waller Murals. It wasn’t the first renovation, by the way. The very first was in the 1930s, after a fire. The downstairs bistro – now simply the Grill – has been renovated a couple of times. The Cellar Bar, with its barrel carved by the late sculptor Clifford Last in one of his first commissions, has an air of proud and busy permanence. I love it – it’s one of the best meeting places in the city. The Cellar Bar, where it all began, kept the name Wynn’s on the glass above the door for years and years.
The menu has changed. Downstairs in the Grill, there’s a focus on regional Italian dishes. Upstairs… now there’s one of the things that makes Grossi Florentino so remarkable: there are actually three businesses under one roof, each with its own identity, and there’s a fourth next door, a bar called Ombra.
It’s difficult, I think, to acquire a place that has such a strong identity. Particularly Upstairs – the formal upstairs restaurant where a suitor I remember quite fondly used to take me when we were students. That was the thing – I got the menu without prices. What should I choose? Was I going to embarrass him if I ordered dishes that were too expensive?
I’ve got many memories of the place. So have so many Melburnians. Some people don’t like change at all, but restaurant critics love it. As do all those who want to know what’s new on the hospitality scene.
So the challenge has been to keep the old place feeling new. It’s been done architecturally, decoratively (new plates, new chairs), and in the style of the food. It would be so easy to fossilise a 90-year-old restaurant. But it has incorporated the changes that are happening in Italy, as chefs modernise traditional dishes and flavours.
It’s still a family business. Pietro trained Guy. Guy’s children, Carlo and Loredana, work in the business too. Carlo is now in charge of upstairs. No doubt Elizabeth’s girls will become part of the business too. The family owns lots of restaurants now. But Florentino is the heart of all of them, I think.
Next year will mark 20 years of Grossi family ownership. Oh good, more celebrations!