6 commitments that have seen Beppi’s survive 60 years
After losing his father in 2016, Marc Polese took the reins of Italian diner, Beppi’s. Here, he talks about how the Sydney institution came to be, and the role tradition and culture has played in the business’ continued success.
When my Dad, Beppi Polese, opened the doors to Beppi’s in Sydney’s city, I think he knew that the restaurant would still be going 60 years later. He meant to make something that would last. A family place, run by our family, serving the traditional Italian food from his home region.
Over the last 30 years, he and I worked hard to maintain what Beppi’s is famous for – a warm welcome, and a loving level of care taken over every dish. We greatly value that our customers have chosen Beppi’s. We want them to feel like we are welcoming them into our home. The fact is, the restaurant scene has changed vastly over the last 60 years but we have always worked hard to ensure that Beppi’s maintains it core values.
60 years is a long time in our industry….
Much was written about Beppi, the man, and Beppi’s, the restaurant, on both the occasion of his passing in 2016, aged 90, and the 60th anniversary of our restaurant in the same year. It is a beautiful story. The story of an Italian migrant – the youngest of five children born to a labourer in 1925 at the base of the Dolomite mountain range north east of Venice. Our family was poor, food was scarce, and Dad worked as a dishwasher from the age of 15 when he was sent away from his village to Milan. Working in kitchens guaranteed he would have enough to eat when most people had little.
In 1940, he watched as the Allies bombed Milan. Dad took every opportunity to work his way out of the kitchen into the dining room and eventually to the famous Gritti Palace Hotel in Venice. He was keen to escape fascist Italy and possible conscription. Yet, while attempting to go to Austria for work, he was caught and thrown into a concentration camp in Vienna. He was later sent to dig tank trenches at the Austro-Hungary border, where he suffered further hunger and deprivation. These experiences steeled his resolve to never be in such a situation again and fuelled his drive through life.
Once escaping the camp he joined the underground in Vienna, selling contraband and living off his wits. One day, when seeing a friend off at the train station he noticed there were no guards around so he made a courageous move, diving under the train and rode under the train back to Italy. Upon arriving in his village he found it occupied by Germans.
He fled to the hills around his village and saw the war out, fighting for the partisans. He recommenced his work in the dining rooms of grand hotels in Italy after the war. It is the stuff movies are made of, and a story that my family never tires from telling.
In 1952, he made the bold decision to leave his family in Italy and head to Australia to find his fortune. He found work at Sydney’s fanciest restaurant, Romano’s. He waited tables, drove taxis, worked hard to get ahead. He met mum, Norma, and together they saved to buy the St James’s Café in Yurong Street. They built a clientele of sitting Prime Ministers, scions of industry, international pop stars and neighbourhood locals. Always sharing a warm welcome and exceptional service in a place that for many, became a home away from home.
The things Beppi’s will never change…
- Never, ever waste food; food is to be cherished
Money was tight for our family and so Beppi began a lifelong commitment to never waste food – everything that could be used was. Food was to be cherished, savoured and enjoyed. So, while most restaurants served only chicken breast, he used the whole chicken. He picked herbs like dandelions for salad from the golf course or the side of the road. Today, we continue this tradition; waste is kept to a minimum in the kitchen.
- Stick to your knitting
From day one, Beppi did what he knew. He never tried to be anything that he was not, and neither does our restaurant. Beppi introduced Australians to eating mussels. As they could not be bought, Beppi and Norma had to collect the mussels growing on the wooden pylons of the Spit Bridge in Sydney in an inflatable dinghy. Dad would coax his patrons to try them, confident that he could convince them in the end. And convince them he did. He had to give them away to clients at first as they all said “you don’t eat mussels, you use them for bait!”Word soon got around that there was a restaurant in Sydney serving food like no other – calamari, mussels, parmigiana, bolognaise ragu, chicken liver pate and a strange fried dish called Fritto Misto. Many of those first dishes are still served today.
- Put your heart into everything that you do
Dad infused his personality into every fibre of the place. The lamps in the cellar? He made them. The leather bound menus? He cut and branded them by hand. He put in archways and wooden beams – to make the place truly his home. The décor is not designed; it has evolved and grown over the decades. It has our soul. He hired handsome Italian waiters, who became part of the Beppi’s family. Still today there are waiters who have worked with Beppi’s for 20 years. It became not just his and Mum’s home but a home for the people who eat here and the people who work here – warm, comforting and familiar. We have a culture which I like to describe as family, we look out for each other as workers and look out for our customers
- Great wine matters
It would be impossible to talk about Beppi’s without talking about our famous wine cellar. Our private rooms are a collection of intimate spaces, developed over time, cocooned by some of the rarest and most priceless wines in the country. Beppi’s was the first restaurant in Australia to put Grange on its wine list. We still have one of the original wine lists from the early 1960’s. The Grange is priced at 30 shillings! It is like no other dining space. My father and I have built our collection over 60 years.
- Tradition still matters
Frank Packer use to wait in his Rolls Royce out the front of the restaurant when a table was not available, his children and grandchildren still dine at Beppi’s today. The Buttrose family have a four generational history of eating at Beppi’s, starting with Ita’s father. Many families have celebrated important occasions through generations. We are honoured to be able to contribute to our customers’ memories and good times.Many celebrities have dined at Beppi’s. Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Neil Armstrong, Mick Jagger, Bono, Sir Edmund Hillary, Rihanna, Ben Stiller – the list goes on and on. Recently, Prime Ministers John Howard and Bob Hawke dined at Beppi’s on the same night, though at different tables. We are quiet and discreet, and we are fiercely protective of our customers.
- A warm welcome and delicious food are always in fashion
Our patrons don’t come to ‘be seen’. They come for the delicious food and special service. From the bread basket with home made crostini and complimentary sundried tomatoes, olive paste and chilli, to the tiramisu, thought, love and care go into every meal. When you walk into Beppi’s, you leave your day behind. It is old-school fine dining, where the experience matters as much as the food. There is something inherently genuine about the experience. We do not follow fads or trends. We believe food should taste good, not just look good. It is not, even after all these years, trying to be anything other than what it is.My father used to always say “flavour is the thing. That’s what it’s all about. It makes you feel good.”
Since I took over, little has changed. We strive to improve and learn, to move forward. We never stop learning from our experiences. I am implementing some tech communication tools for the staff, increasing our social media presence and looking at how we can maintain our tradition without being seen as old fashioned. Last year, for instance, we collaborated with Campari to create a celebratory cocktail – the Sessanta. We evolve our food menu, wine list and cocktail menu to not only reflect current trends but also revive old favourites that have stood the test of time. In a world that emphasises the new, we feel tradition is important; it honours our past and the good things we have learnt from our forebears. We stay true to who we are. Beppi’s.