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Mietta's Italian Family Recipes

Mietta's Italian Family Recipes

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Mietta's Italian Family Recipes

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Nov 9, 2015


Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes presents over 185 recipes, covering antipasto, soups, risotto, pasta, fish, meat, pizza and desserts. Together they demonstrate the ways in which original Italian recipes can be re-interpreted to suit modern Australian life, ingredients and equipment. This new edition includes forewords by Mietta’s sister, Patricia O’Donnell, and by her partner, Tony Knox, as well as a publisher’s note and a selection of new photographs.

‘Who were the subtle Europeans who showed a raw young Australia how to eat well and enjoy the food the land produced? How did they perform that exuberant labour of kitchen love, the Italians who began arriving in Melbourne three or four generations ago? Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes interweaves a loving story of Mietta’s own family and friends with a clear and practical exposition of all the good Italian sense she learned in the kitchen at home – the secrets Mietta drew on as one of Australia’s most celebrated restaurateurs. The social history is fascinating, the kitchen wisdom beyond praise, and Mietta’s family snaps are a delight.’ —Peter Robb

‘I remember the Sunday nights with jazz and the memorable singing of Peaches la Crème, and the energy that Tony and Mietta displayed in their dancing. The hospitality at such evenings was the stuff of legend.’ —Stephanie Alexander

‘In the early eighties Mietta’s was the home of good food and culture. There you could spend hours meeting people, arguing, listening to writers or music, eating and drinking. For Mietta and her partner, Tony Knox, ideas were central, and together we created the event “Readings at Mietta’s”, inviting writers to read and talk about their works. Mietta treated them like very special guests; for the writers it was a unique and affirming experience. I have many wonderful memories of Mietta, and Mietta’s Family Recipes is a wonderful reflection of her ideas and philosophies about food and life.’ —Mark Rubbo

‘Mietta gave me the reassurance to trust my instincts, and more importantly the confidence to believe in my culinary ideas and claim them as my own.’ —Andrew McConnell

‘When you went to Mietta’s it was like being on a beautiful ship steered by Mietta. With a secret hand signal or a raised eyebrow she attended to every detail, creating elegance I have rarely experienced.’ —Anna Funder

Mietta O'Donnell (1951-2001) was a well-known restaurateur and author. Together, she and her partner, photographer Tony Knox, published a number of books, including Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes, Great Australian Chefs and their annual guide, Mietta's Best Australian Restaurants.
Nov 9, 2015

Informazioni sull'autore

Mietta O'Donnell (1951-2001) was a well-known restaurateur and author. Together, she and her partner, photographer Tony Knox, published a number of books, including Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes, Great Australian Chefs and their annual guide, Mietta's Best Australian Restaurants.

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Mietta's Italian Family Recipes - Mietta O’Donnell

Published by Black Inc.,

an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd

37–39 Langridge Street

Collingwood VIC 3066 Australia

First published in 2000.

This edition published in 2015.

Copyright © Mietta O’Donnell 2000

The estate of Mietta O’Donnell asserts her right to be known as the author of this work.


No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

O’Donnell, Mietta, author.

Mietta’s Italian family recipes / Mietta O’Donnell.

3rd edition

9781863957885 (hardback)

Cooking, Italian. Italians—Australia—Anecdotes.


Thanks to the Australia Foundation for Culture and the Humanities

Permission to reprint an extract from Italian Craftsmanship and Building in Victoria by Celestina Sagazio granted by National Trust of Australia.

Permission to reproduce an extract from My Brother Jack by George Johnson granted by HarperCollins Publishers Australia.

Cover and text design by Guy Mirabella & Peter Long, with assistance from Jannetien Huijsman-Duncan.


After a life in restaurants, my mother – for whom Mietta was named Maria Fernanda, although almost instantly the baby was nicknamed Mietta – wanted none of that for her daughters. It is a seductive life, designing and running your own world, but it is a life of very, very hard work. Mother succeeded for a time, and we had other lives before succumbing to the sirens’ song. The young Mietta seemed destined for journalism with a political bent.

Straight out of school and, my memory suggests, without any career consultation with her family, she secured a cadetship at the Sun newspaper. Mietta was always inclined to surprise her family. I still remember the night she came home to a family dinner to tell us she had passed her driver’s test. We all froze. We had all tried to teach Mietta to drive and failed. She was then, and always, a terrible driver. But I digress. In the second year of her cadetship (and part-time Arts and Journalism degree at the University of Melbourne) she won an essay competition. The prize was three weeks in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. ‘Australian Girl Reporter wins Asian Tour’ was reported throughout the local Asian papers. It was an extraordinary experience. In Indonesia she met generals and provincial governors. There is a photo of her on a beach in South Java watching a Kopassus landing exercise. When I went back with her to Indonesia months later, she was remembered and feted. (For the history books and the Bali buffs: in conversation with the Governor of Bali, we were told that tourism in Bali was to be restricted to Sanur.) At university she switched subjects to Indonesian Language, Indonesian and Malaysian Politics and Political Studies.

And then came the obligatory trip to Europe. To Perugia first, of course, for Italian. (Mietta was an excellent linguist. Her Indonesian was speedily serviceable, her French and Italian as speedily excellent.) Then to London and, via Spain and North Africa, to Sicily and Rome, to Paris and then Greece and Turkey. I think it was in Greece, appropriately, where the sirens began to sing. Mietta spent some time there at a pensione near Delphi as cook and manager. She loved it.

On her return to Melbourne, she went to work for Ralph Willis as his electoral assistant, so the political interests were still alive. But she began to force my mother to give dinner parties, so as to work her way through Robert Carrier’s ‘Great Dishes of the World’, to eat around all the notable restaurants, and to work at night to gain experience on the floor. She met Tony, whose passion was converting old buildings, she was offered an old butcher’s shop on Brunswick Street by an astute friend, and then encouraged by friends on the Fitzroy Council to get the new BYO permit. The die, as they say, was cast.

The Mietta remembered now is the elegant, slight figure, hands crossed, at the top of the grand staircase – reserved, a little aloof and almost iconic in that enigmatic sense: the figure in the Clifton Pugh painting. The Mietta of Brunswick Street was rounder, untidier, only 24, and indomitable in her single-mindedness and determination. Her leap from the kitchen to the dining room as the stairs collapsed under her – and her landing with three dinner plates intact and her wrap skirt held up by her elbows – was the stuff of legend. As were the Sunday nights. Mario’s had featured piano accordians and singing waiters. Mietta’s starred, inter alia, Henry Maas, Rod Quantock, Mary Kenneally, Sam Angelico and Mietta and Tony’s enviable jiving. The menu at Brunswick Street was never Italian, but the flowers were what her grandmother had always given guests at Mario’s, the bread was pasta dura and a bowl of dolcetti was served with coffee.

Repeated trips to the three-star restaurants of France and the coffee houses of Central and Eastern Europe raised the bar. Travelling with Mietta was, by the way, always both exhausting and exhilarating. In Milano she knew the shops – not Prada but Beltrami. In France the three-star chefs knew her and welcomed her into their kitchens as an equal. In newly opened East Berlin she knew what dingy cellars to go to for the edgiest performances. And so on. Everywhere, through some mysterious osmotic process, she just knew who to meet, where to go and what to do.

Mietta’s at Alfred Place was the result: it was what Howard Jacobson described as ‘Versailles above and Bohemia beneath’. It was the apogee of Mietta’s and Tony’s ambitions and aspirations and their restaurant life. The performances, the readings, the concerts and the parties are celebrated, but there was another dimension. Winsome McCaughey wrote about the thousands of hours of discussions and seminars about the future of Melbourne and social justice. I stopped Rob Adams in the street one day to congratulate him on yet another award for his contribution to recreating Melbourne, and especially the now-famous laneways. His reply was that it was all due to Mietta. He arrived knowing no-one and she introduced him to everyone. Years of dinners connected the most unexpected people. John Clarke called it ‘strategic dining’, and recalled a dinner with Richard Alston and a table of writers, producers and artists who sought to impress upon the new broadcasting minister the importance of the ABC: ‘For Mietta this was important work. She was serious and resolute and yet soft, considerate and attentive. She noticed everything and her impact on the evening she had brought into being was so light she was sometimes almost invisible.’

Mietta died suddenly in 2001. We don’t speak of her death, not even of what it demonstrated or how much she was loved and admired, of how many lives she had changed, although there was and is great consolation in that. We talk only of her loveliness and her life, the joy of it all and the good in it all.

Patricia O’Donnell


Mietta and I met at Jimmy Watson’s in Carlton. She was a journalist working as an electoral assistant for the Member for Gellibrand, Ralph Willis, and I was renovating trendy Carlton houses – an unlikely combination of skills for budding restaurateurs.

Mietta, however, did know something about restaurants. She had a second job, working nights as a waitress at Mr Bumby’s in South Yarra. More importantly, she had grown up in Melbourne’s Italian restaurant world. Her grandparents had started Mario’s in Exhibition Street in the 1930s, and her mother worked there until the restaurant closed in the late 1960s.

We decided to start a restaurant with a third partner, Jules Lavarack, who was to be the chef. We rented an old butcher’s shop at the far end of Brunswick Street and set about converting it into Mietta’s. In this endeavour we were helped by some Jimmy Watson’s regulars, who generously took time off from their labours at the bar of that venerable establishment. The restaurant opened in 1974, at the beginning of the BYO boom.

Jules, who’d been chef for Tony Bilson at the Albion Hotel in Lygon Street, said he never wanted to cook another steak or be tied down by a printed menu. So he and Mietta came up with a revolutionary idea for the time: a short menu of four entrees, mains and desserts that changed weekly. The dishes were to be drawn from a variety of the world’s cuisines. In those days it was almost impossible to buy a Chinese cookbook, Italian cooking was under-represented and French cooking ruled.

Mietta’s was hugely successful from the start, putting a great strain on the primitive kitchen and the student waiters under Mietta’s direction. Somehow she managed to keep it together. As time passed we expanded the restaurant, adding a fish and chip shop next door, a proper kitchen and professional staff. Mietta learnt a lot from her chefs and waiters.

Our kitchen comprised both a Chinese and an Italian chef, while Fred Chalupa, our head chef, was Austrian. This brought a degree of authenticity to the dishes we served from a range of cuisines. We also worked on improving the comfort level of the restaurant, adding a much-admired garden area.

Then we ventured overseas. In Italy we found great food and in France great restaurants, while in London they were doing much as we were in Australia but without the multicultural perspective. Exposure to the world prompted us to rethink what we were doing in Melbourne.

After placing an advertisement for a chef, I received a phone call: a Gallic voice said, ‘I am ze French chef.’ It was Jacques Reymond. And so began our voyage Français.

In 1984 we bought the premises of the German Club, later the Naval and Military Club, in Alfred Place, just off Collins Street. A whole new adventure unfolded, starting with a trip to London with the inimitable Graham Geddes to buy furniture for the restaurant.

Mietta’s restaurant was on the first floor in a magnificent room which had been the ballroom of the German Club. We reinstated the original colour-scheme and furnished it with Victorian balloon-back chairs, mahogany tables, some splendid high-backed late-eighteenth-century benches and a massive mahogany sideboard that we had bought in London. The food was, of course, French. To complete our conversion to a French restaurant, we advertised for staff in Paris and brought back chefs and waiters.

On the ground floor was ‘the Lounge’, a new concept for Melbourne. It was open until four a.m. and had an eclectic mix of furniture – Singaporean marble cafe tables, dining chairs, a chaise longue, armchairs and a magnificent red ottoman. Great vases of flowers were borne by early-nineteenth-century blackamoors, and exquisite decorative drapes and woven carpets graced the windows and floor. Here you could sip cocktails till early morning, eat simple food at odd hours, listen to music, talk or just enjoy the slice of Melbourne nightlife.

After twenty-two years we called it a day and retired to a life of writing and travelling Australia, researching the restaurant guide we were to publish with Black Inc. It was at this time that Mietta was drawn back to her roots and decided that she should share her love of Italian food.

She wasn’t interested in just another recipe book – it needed context. What better way to look at Italian food in Australia than to interview those who introduced it: the descendants of the people whose families, like her grandparents, had come to Australia and started restaurants, serving spaghetti that wasn’t tinned.

The dishes in Mietta’s Italian Family Recipes are drawn from Italian chefs who had worked with the family or established their own restaurants within the Italian tradition. These apparently simple recipes are as close to the food you find in Italy as is possible in Australia. The proportions are precise and the taste true. These classic dishes are as relevant today as they were fifteen years ago.

In 2001, a few days before her fiftieth birthday, Mietta was killed in a car accident in Tasmania. She was doing research for her guide to Australian restaurants, Mietta’s Eating and Drinking in Australia.

Tony Knox


We published the annual Australian restaurant guides Mietta’s Eating and Drinking in Australia in 2000 and 2001. For the Melbourne section, Mietta and Tony often invited my wife Anna and me to join them in the judging process. In the beginning I imagined that this would require an immense and nuanced knowledge of food and its preparation, not to speak of highly attuned taste buds and the language to communicate the subtleties of taste, smell, texture and whatnot. We would book the restaurant under my name, to ensure that the poor restaurateur wasn’t alerted to their imminent moment of judgement. This didn’t really do the job, as everyone in the business knew Mietta and Tony, and much hovering and fuss always accompanied our arrival.

The process was always the same. We would order four different entrees, mains and sweets, and we would circulate each dish and make all the appropriate noises – and this was before MasterChef ! Tony expected us to write little reviews, which I initially resisted for fear of making a fool of myself. But after a while, and with lots of prodding, I started to realise that there was much more to the restaurant experience than the quality of the food. Sure, great food and drink was the basis, but that was just one part of the whole. The ambience, the decor, the spacing of the tables, the lighting, the waiting, the not waiting, the attention, the friendliness without too much familiarity – it was the culture of the place.

By the time Mietta and Tony proposed this book, I had got it. They were going to deliver a cultural history as much as a collection of recipes. The Italian restaurant families introduced Melbourne not only to their fabulous cuisine, but also to the joy of dining. I am so pleased to be republishing this book for a new generation of readers, to retell the history of how this place became such a centre for eating out, and a tribute to the people, led by Mietta O’Donnell and Tony Knox, who understood but also practised what they preached. They helped us become dining grown-ups.

Morry Schwartz


Thank you to the many great Italian cooks and friends who have shared their experience and knowledge with me.

Valerio Nucci, who worked with my uncle Ferdi at Mario’s, Brighton, has given me some of his own recipes. Valerio is now Executive Chef for Epicure Catering and responsible for the food at Match and The Boulevard restaurants in Melbourne.

Patrizia Simone shared many of her recipes with me. She and her husband George run Cafe Bacco and Simone’s at Bright.

Of the families talked about here: with love and thanks to Lou Molina who gave us great meals and recipes and made it all so much fun; Rino Codognotto for his time, memories and recipes; my Aunt Maria (Barro) for sharing her memories, photographs and her lovely voice. And to Mario Virgona for his time and the family photographs which he has allowed us to use.

And not forgetting my own family: my mother who really made it all happen; my sister Robin who helped in sorting and bringing together much of the Viganŏ family material such as newspaper clippings and photos. Her advice and knowledge over many years, as with that of my sister Patricia, has been invaluable. Patricia has given her historian’s perspective to our family story.

Thanks also to my long-suffering partner, Tony Knox, and even more long-suffering editor, Kate van den Boogert, for their patience and advice.

I would also like to thank the staff at CO.AS.IT. for allowing me to use their resources in research for this book. For those who want to learn more about these and the many other Italian families who have contributed so much to the food culture of Australia, I highly recommend a visit to their resource centre at 185 Faraday Street, Carlton in Melbourne.

Finally, special thanks to the Australia Foundation for Culture and the Humanities for their assistance and interest in this project. Their support and encouragement has been invaluable.

The recipes in this book have been adapted for cooking in Australia. The person who has contributed most of those recipes and tested them with me is Silvana Palmira who has been chef-owner of several successful restaurants in Melbourne. Originally from Molise in the Abruzzo region of Italy, Silvana always loved cooking. Her grandmother and uncle were professional cooks, but her parents insisted she learn another trade. Nevertheless, after coming to Melbourne in 1956 and marrying Pietro Battaglia she started a catering business, and in between running restaurants, returned often to Italy. She is now retired, though fortunately for those of us who love her food, she still cooks every day at home. Her memories of food in Italy, her understanding of flavour and her passionate attention to every small detail in her cooking are an inspiration. She has helped me greatly in putting together this book, as has her husband Pietro who meticulously checked translations and terminology. I am enormously grateful to both of them for their time. The shaping force of this collection of recipes is the knowledge and experience of Silvana Palmira. Thank you Silvana!

Mietta O’Donnell

Spaghetti Napoli, a simple dish but just right when Silvana Palmira makes it; steaming hot and with the sauce coating the pasta.


Italian Family Stories


Broths and Minestre

Pasta the Prima Donna

Focaccia and Pizza Doughs

Risotto and Polenta

Fish and Shellfish


Meat and Game





Running a restaurant means you seldom eat at home. Nor do you stop running long enough to pause to reflect on who and what you are and who helped get you there.

So it was only after closing Mietta’s, the restaurant Tony Knox and I opened in 1974, that we began to rediscover the joys of home cooking and to think about the people who inspired us not only to become restaurateurs, but also to become the sort of restaurateurs that we had been. It became clear that my family, as well as a number of other Italian immigrant families who had established restaurants in Melbourne, had all

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