At Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca, things are going “great guns”, says Josh Fry. The head chef and co-owner of the Fitzroy takeaway sandwich bar is surprised by just how receptive Melbourne has been, even though the venue is currently behind scaffolding. No one would expect opening a pop-up during stage 3 restrictions would be such a success either.   

It certainly wasn’t the plan for Fry or co-owners Zoë Rubino and Emilio Scalzo. So, how did they end up launching an Italian-inspired sandwich shop and deli mid-pandemic?   

Fry has 13 years in kitchens under his belt. After completing his apprenticeship at Tutto Bene in Melbourne’s Southgate and Nobu in Crown Towers, he worked at a few restaurants around town, including Verge, before landing under the wing of Andrew McConnell. Fry’s years at what is now known as Trader House Restaurants were particularly formative. Over the course of seven years, he progressed from commis chef at Cutler & Co to head chef at Marion.   

“Working alongside Andrew was very formative, especially when I was more in the senior roles,” says Fry. “I think it really formed the way I look at food and cook.” Moving through stations steadily, he also learned from the head chefs he worked under; Chris Watson and Casey McDonald. “I think those two taught me a heap about food and just kitchen culture in general,” says Fry.   

Read the full profile in Hospitality’s June/July issue

A certified leader, Fry went on a sabbatical of sorts, undertaking a series of stints in cult Melbourne kitchens including French Saloon and Leonardo’s Pizza Palace. A 2019 trip to Sydney saw him at Firedoor and Sixpenny. Two and a half years after leaving his post at Marion, Fry was ready to hit the ground running in 2020, with plans to open a multi-level bar and bistro. But he was faced with the unexpected — an industry-wide shutdown.   Fry, Rubino and Scalzo quickly made the decision to hit pause on the original concept and open Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca in its place. “It’s completely different,” says Fry. “A couple of the sandwiches [at Rocco’s] were always going to be a part of it, but it was going to be more of a wine bar, dance party vibe. There was going to be a lot of people in a room drinking wine and having a good time under a disco ball. It was going to be [about] ‘What kind of party can we throw? What kind of vibe can we offer?’ The food would almost play second fiddle. Now, that’s all we have to offer.”   

Currently, the plan is to wait until physical distancing requirements, particularly the need to keep density below one person per 4 square metres, are removed.   

“It’s something we’ve discussed at length really, and we’re all chomping at the bit to serve someone sitting at a table, but it’s just not offering the full potential we have,” says Fry. “If we’ve got something that’s working behind closed doors, we might as well keep pushing until we can open something we are fully proud of.” Opening Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca as a pop-up has allowed the team to preserve the brand. “We were talking about opening the original restaurant [concept] as a takeaway and we thought we didn’t want everyone’s first impression to be a paper cup,” says Fry.

Read the rest of the journey in Hospitality’s June/July issue

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