Let’s talk Melbourne institutions. OK, there’s the MCG, Flemington on Cup Day, the Yarra with its UK-style boatsheds, Flinders Street railway station and the Bortolotto family and its Cecconi’s restaurant!
Sure, there’s a lot more, but that’s a pretty good start. And anyone who has wandered up Flinders Lane on a Friday or Saturday night knows there’s a lot of pulling appeal that goes with the patch called Cecconi’s. In racing season, you’ll see the likes of Gai Waterhouse there. On AFL game day, it’s spot the footy legend, while on most days you can find the captains of industry and their numbers men and women occupying this legendary Italian eatery.
But rivaling Cecconi’s reputation is the name of the family that owns it – the Bortolotto tribe – who have been wowing Victorian foodies for near on 50 years. This week I caught up with Maria Bortolotto, the daughter of the matriarch – Olimpia – who got the ball rolling and the ovens fired up with this very tasty business story.
The family name became Melbourne famous in the 1980s and 1990s with Bortolotto’s Café Menis in St Kilda but after Crown Casino’s godfather Lloyd Williams enjoyed Cecconi’s in London, in 1996 he enticed Olimpia to run his take on Cecconi’s in the windy city.
This union created a restaurant that attracted both national and international rave reviews and in 2006 the Bortolotto’s left Crown to establish itself in the basement location in Flinders Lane, where it has continued to flourish.
“Bortolotto’s Café Menis became a big institution, it was a local name, everyone went there,” Maria said. “And we worked our way up to the more formal dining.”
Asked what it was like to go from cafes to Cecconi’s at Crown, Maria responded as a typical entrepreneur: “Exciting! You were in a glamorous world where Crown did everything for you and all you have to do is maintain the service and the food.”
Easy for a Bortolotto to say this but there’s a hell of a lot of restaurants that have stumbled at those two hurdles. So what did the family learn playing ‘first grade’ at Crown?
“Hard work, commitment and you had to know your product – the wine was the best of the best so we called in the professionals so we had a world-class wine list,” she recalled. “The first three years was the hardest but then it became easy once you get good staff and train them well.”
On that subject Maria deferred to her sister.
“My sister, Anna, is my partner and she’s a bit anal,” she revealed laughing.
On staff I cheekily asked if their staff is ‘trained’ to sound Italian for effect? Her answer is revealing.
“Nowadays it’s hard to source well-trained people in Australia,” Maria admitted. “Half of our restaurant is from Italy, they’re incredibly trained, they suit our style, they have heart and that’s what we want. We’re an authentic family who loves what we do.”
That said, she thinks young Australians are on the learning curve and have bright prospects in an industry that goes from strength to strength and she’s right with the latest retail figures showing how food businesses are on a roll. Overall, retail was flat or unchanged in July but food retailing was up 0.7% and cafes, restaurants and takeaway rose 1.2%.
While the success story can’t be challenged, I asked about the challenges leading a family business.
“It’s hard,” Maria conceded. “We have three strong-minded people who all have a vision and it’s important that all are heard, you allow them their space and each one has a different talent that is brought to Cecconi’s Flinders Lane.”
Call me inexperienced but Cecconi’s seems like fine dining to me and so I asked Maria about the future of this segment, when some experts think it’s on the way out.
“I think it will always live on, sure you can say we’re fine dining as we have the white table cloths, the wine and all the things that go with it but it’s also an approachable restaurant.”
Maria thinks with the bar and the outdoor terrace that they have blended casual dining with elegant dining but whatever it is, it works!
One constant for Cecconi’s from my view is that it always seems packed and I asked if it leverages off the fact that Melbourne is the events capital of Australia.
“Absolutely, last weekend was a classic where there was no football,” she pined. “Melbourne was quiet, which was bizarre!”
Maria no longer runs the show but says she, along with her mum and sister, still guide the operation.
So what does she do nowadays?
“There is always lots to do, taking care of my investments, keeping up with social media, watching trends, eating at my favourite restaurants, cooking, catching up with friends, walking the dogs – there is never a dull moment in the Bortolotto household. However, gardening would have to be my favourite past time – my garden in the Lorne hinterland overlooks the ocean, it’s peaceful, relaxing, a paradise of sky and forest. I think getting outdoors and into nature is very good for the soul, especially now that spring is in the air.”
Given this, how does Maria ensure Cecconi’s maintains its standard?
“ Constant evaluation of the business and communication with staff allows me to be across exactly what is being delivered within the Cecconi’s restaurant. And as I said, my sister Anna is quite a perfectionist so I know everything is being executed with superior professionalism.”
I asked if she missed the hurdy gurdy of running a restaurant day in day out.
“Being free of the day to day affords me the opportunity to explore many links our business has forged over the years, in sport, business, fashion, music and entertainment.
“My usual day begins at 5am when I walk our beautiful dogs, Ellie and Charlie. Then I might head to the restaurant for a breakfast meeting or catch up with friends, a quick check on things, and a social post. I’ve come to realise that social media is super important these days.
“I’m always busy, there is always a project on the go, therefore hours are spent doing research on buildings, recycling, sustainability, what’s new in the garden, design, food, trends etc. As I said Cecconi’s needs to always stay current and reflect the ever changing environment we live in.”
Many of us have our view of what Cecconi’s means but what does it mean to its owners?
“Cecconi’s has a timeless, European style with soul. It is a luxury lifestyle restaurant, which is always very welcoming. We want the Cecconi’s experience to be memorable for all our customers, as ultimately our restaurant needs to reflect and stay relevant within the Melbourne dining scene.”
Gee, it’s as though she created what it is! Funny that.
For the record, I did ask Maria: what are your favourite three restaurants in the world? They are:
• Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italia
• Centrale, Lima, Peru
• Sensa Fretta, Cuneo, Italia.
And, have there been lots of celebrities in your restaurants?
“At Bortolotto’s Café Menis – Pavarotti, we cooked for both him and his group. We also had Bob Hawke, Andrew Peacock, Anne Peacock and many rockstars. With Cecconi’s at Crown – Roger Federer what a beautiful man, Serena Williams, Andy Murray, [Formula One drivers] Schumacher and Vettel, Adam Sangster, Gai Waterhouse, James and Kerry Packer, the list goes on…
“Cecconi’s Flinders Lane – Pierce Brosnan, Kim Kardashian, Adam Sangster, Gai Waterhouse, Francesca Cumani and family, golly! And many many more.”
So who are the special people she’d like to thank or recognise for the success of Cecconi’s?
“To all our staff over the many years and the many people that have inspired us! My family for teaching us, work ethic, work hard be determined and follow your dreams. I’d also like to thank my mother Olimpia Bortolotto, my sister Anna and my father Lino Bortolotto.”
What lies ahead for the business and family now?
“More inspiration, a lifetime of opportunities, starting with a year in Europe. I have just returned from six weeks driving through France, Burgundy and Northern Italy and into Austria. The culinary delights, the honesty, the localness in food and wine were very inspiring,” she said.
Given what Maria and her family have given to Melbourne, she deserves the wonderful life she seems to be enjoying. Chin-chin Cecconi’s and all who have made it what it is!