Lucio Galletto | The Art of Traditional Italian

Well-known Sydney restaurateur Lucio Galletto has made a successful career of serving elegant Italian food to Sydney’s political elite, media and especially the country’s finest artists. Born in a small Italian village on the coast of Liguria, Lucio Galletto OAM came to Australia in 1977 and has, since then, been influencing both Australian palates and palettes. There wouldn’t be many of Australia’s great artists in the last 35 years to whom Lucio hasn’t served an anti pasti plate at his Paddington establishment.

In his new book, The Art of Traditional Italian, Lucio celebrates authentic Italian cuisine, which is close to his heart, but the book also incorporates the works of his artist friends who have all contributed original art to the splendid design of the book. Art and artists have always been an important part of his life – where Lucio has made deep and long-lasting friendships and has inspired a vibrant cultural meeting point for Sydney’s art community, all hosted with a generous spirit. The restaurant itself serves as a mini gallery of his artist friends whose works famously line the walls of Lucio’s in Paddington.

In Lucio’s new book, artists such as John Olsen, Gary Shead, Euan Macleod, Luke Sciberras and Salvatore Zofrea, to name just a few, have contributed their talents, so we felt it was a great opportunity to find out more about Galletto’s passions and his role in the Australian art community.

Can I ask why you first came to Australia?
Ahh that’s a very nice question – I came for love. I met my wife Sally in Italy and she’s Australian. She was travelling around Europe in 1975, in an old Kombi van. She came to the village where my parents had a restaurant and so we met the first day that she was there and it was love at first sight for the two of us. We got married in Italy, stayed there a while and it took about three years before we came to Australia to meet my parents-in-law. Instantly, I loved this country – the openness, the outdoor lifestyle, the city of Sydney itself. It was so different. My parents were peasants back home and they used to work seven days a week; it was too much but living here in this country seemed to be a better life, it seemed a little easier. I’m not saying my parents didn’t enjoy their life – they did enjoy it, growing their own fruit and vegetables, making their own dinners from scratch every day. I love it here, I enjoy the openness of the mind as well as my association with the artists. For me Australia was full of new ideas – I’ve been here for 37 years now but luckily I’ve always been able to go back regularly to see my family or friends.

I became Australian when I lived more years here than I did in Italy.

Has food provided a way for you to reconnect with Italy and your roots?
Yes, I always have a few dishes that remind me of my region and the flavours that I used to grow up with. I was born in a restaurant really – but when I was a kid I used to be around the kitchen with my parents and my aunt and uncle. What got me hooked in this business, this wonderful life of ours, was seeing the produce brought in every day by the local fisherman and farmers, then seeing it being transformed by my family into beautiful dishes that the customers were enjoying. It was not only the food but the conviviality and I said to myself “this is for me”.

So what drew you into the world of art?
During the summer months my family had this idea of opening an art gallery – to attract more people to the village. It was just a local art gallery but then it became a bit more important and contained works from artists from other regions of Italy and other countries in Europe. I remember there was a Miró exhibition in the early 60s in the village, but the most important thing for me was meeting the artists. As a young teenager I knew nothing about the world or life outside the village. When I saw these artists coming to the village for their exhibition they looked very different from the local people. They were wearing different clothes, haircuts and my mother would comment “look at those strange people” but to me I found them fascinating, to me they were a window to the world. I wanted to know what the world was like outside our small village. I’m sure I used to bother them with a lot of silly questions but I learnt a lot from those artists and in fact I still do nowadays – I love artists. For me first comes the artist and then the art! I love the way they see life and how they portray life with their art

Have these friendships and associations affected your cooking and the way you create in the kitchen?
Not with all of them, but with a couple I learnt something about food too, particularly with John Olsen. We have become like friends and family – he’s been doing the menus for me for the last 25 years. John was one of the first artists or people that understood my view on food and cooking, we were on the same wavelength, that same approach to conviviality and cooking. Every day here it is like having people over to my place and I want them to be happy, to cook for them and give them the best. Because for me this is not just a job, for me it’s a passion, it’s my life.

So in this new book what recipes mean the most to you?
In the book there’s one called Tian di Sardine which means in Genovese dialect ‘big pan’. People used to think sardines were for the cats.

I remember this dish as a young child in Italy particularly as our family was very poor. So the fish we used to eat were the cheapest ones like anchovies, sardines, octopus, mussels – those kinds of things – very tasty but the cheapest ones. We never had a crab, a lobster or branzino (fish) – you know, the good ones that were for the customers. This recipe with sardines, you open up the sardine and bake it in a bed of potatoes, onions, some tomatoes, thyme and rosemary. Fantastic! When I cooked it for the photograph in the book in the kitchen it took me back years and I’m over 60 now, but these aromas were like I was a kid again – it’s one of those dishes that you never forget.

Do you still study cooking and look for inspiration?
I think in our business you are very lucky to learn every day. I keep in contact with other chefs, I’m an avid collector of cookbooks, I’ve got hundreds! When I was in Italy I didn’t know much about food really – what I knew was the food of my area, not even my region, which changes every few kilometres. All I knew was the food of my mother and the food of the restaurant we worked in, that’s all. When I came to Australia it all opened up because in those days a cookbook in Italy was unheard of – not many had cookbooks in their kitchen then. So I started to study and appreciate all the other regions of Italy and understand why there is a different type of cooking in all the different regions. Which is very important – like the south is for dry pasta because they dry it with their fantastic weather. In the north they eat fresh pasta because otherwise it goes mouldy with their humid grey skies, and so on.

The latest book is titled The Art of Traditional Italian – based solely on authentic dishes?
That’s my point because after centuries the Italians got it just right. Nowadays you read that someone goes to Puglia or Sicily and wants to change a recipe they discovered and they say, “I’m cooking this particular dish in another way” – un momento please? If you want to do it that way that’s fine, but this way has been perfected over centuries and that’s the way to really do it. Sometimes it gets me upset a bit, these people go to Italy for five minutes and they think they know the entire cuisine. For me the best memories were waking up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and smelling the sauce bubbling away on the stove. The aroma of the ragu all over the house, the sounds of my mother making the pasta and she was all white covered in flour.

That’s why I did this book of traditional Italian cooking because I would love people, even non-Italian people, to create new memories. We Italians have these beautiful memories of our nonna’s cooking which last for our whole lives, but then combining this with the artists’ artwork – it’s my dream come true – art and food!

Artists Luke Sciberras and Salvatore Zofrea offered their own stories of colourful encounters at Lucio’s restaurant…

Luke Sciberras

Certainly Lucio and his restaurant are a culture in crucible form. It is a wholly unique experience (entirely addictive) to dine in a haven of the world’s finest food and wine and swaddled in the cream fat of Australia’s most loved artists.

There is an uplifting atmosphere at Lucio’s restaurant which is paradoxically met with the refinement and elegance that frames the whole scene. Far from the cliché of the stuffy high-class, two-hat, Michelin starred nosheries where a pin may be heard dropping in the kitchen, Lucio’s waiters and family welcome and serve with a perfectly choreographed warmth and genuine love of their product and guests. I guess that is in a nutshell why Lucio received an Order of Australia for his services to the industry and to the arts; his is a genuine passion for the best in food, art and friendship.

My friendship with Lucio and his family is deep and wide, he has also broadened my understanding of what it is to be a painter in that he and his cousin Mario taught me a lot about responding immediately to the ‘aliveness’ or freshness of things and to express the thrill of being presented with something that is changing, moving, even the animism in the landscape – we share a passion for the delectable sexiness of our crafts and their rewards.

I’ve worked closely with Lucio illustrating some of his books and there is a magical confluence in our collaboration where we have found a seamless understanding with our characteristic joviality flourishing together. Lucio thought it a great compliment when someone once asked me how I would like to die. And I answered “laughing at table bar one of Lucio’s restaurant!” My girlfriend touched me on the hand at lunch one day and said “I like you best right here, this is where you’re happiest”.

It can and must be said that the institution that is Lucio’s has become a colourful constant in our lives. Over the years it has remained the place where we converge to share the heights of conviviality, the most meaningful of intimate encounters and the coming together of every event regarding my family in all of its forms. There’s one rare place where the artists have to meet, share, conduct business and enjoy the finest things in life, that is Lucio’s, there is no other place the same. 

Salvatore Zofrea

“I was born in Calabria but I’ve been in Australia from the age of nine. Lucio comes from Liguria which is a very different part of Italy, but it has the same spirit. We’re lucky to have him here as an enrichment of our way of life. I met him in 1993, when my agent brought me here. It was an enlightenment to see how generous he was of himself. The atmosphere was light and friendly, and I liked the food … He’s an artist with food, which is just as important as painting. Lucio is one of the few who has been able to blend art and food. Other people get bogged down in wanting money, money; sometimes they cut corners or they’re aggressive. Lucio has been able to build himself a lifestyle that he enjoys without doing that.”

Lucio Galletto
The Art of Traditional Italian
Lantern, imprint of Penguin Australia
RRP: $59.99
www.lucios.com.au

Courtesy Lucio Galletto and the artists