A year of travel for a restaurateur is more than just a holiday — it’s a buffet of inspiration and a chance to eat and drink to your heart’s content. After the sale of the Zuzza family’s Glebe restaurant, The Mixing Pot, Peter Zuzza decided to head to Italy with his wife and children. “We went to Treviso where I grew up and I did some food and wine courses,” he says. “I spent a month in Tuscany with a winemaker and went to Bologna to make gelato and pasta. I would eat at osterias in small towns and see what they were doing, which was always simple and using produce that was in season. That’s what Italian food is to me so I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that here?’”
Zuzza bought Haberfield’s La Disfida in 2009 with plans to exact his produce-first vision, but was left in a bit of a pickle when he had to completely staff the venue. “The people who owned the restaurant helped for a couple of weeks until we closed to fix a few things,” says Zuzza. “My father, sister and some friends came to help, but it was hard.”
Trying to find staff at the end and the beginning of the year is tough, but Zuzza was set on what he wanted to create and employees had to fit the bill. “I’m not an easy person to work for but I’m fair — I think it all comes down to trying to be a perfectionist,” he admits. “When I find staff who have the same passion as me, it’s fantastic. I’ll do anything to help them and we feed off each other.”
La Disfida currently employ 12 staff members, but Zuzza says it’s hard to find good people — whether they’re local or from afar. “We’re looking for staff all the time,” he says. “We sponsor overseas workers, but I think people might be getting discouraged if they want to continue their experiences in Australia.” The restaurateur has also noticed a downturn in people swinging by in the hopes of securing a job. “There’s less people coming around asking for work — we used to get a couple of resumes a week. We advertise for apprentices sometimes, but the uptake isn’t great.”
Zuzza finds the best method of recruitment is through existing staff members or other restaurateurs. “Danny Russo [Russolini group] is a good friend of mine and he helps me out, but [we] ask staff if they know someone who’s looking for work. Sometimes we suck it up and wait until we find the right person. [We look for] people who aren’t afraid of hard work, love what they do, have a passion for food, wine or customer service and can get along with everyone.”
Zuzza was committed to running a restaurant inspired by the simplicity of small-town osterias — one that offered an Italian wine list, the pizza La Disfida was famed for and a menu that celebrated seasonality. “I was set on what I wanted to create and I thought it’s either going to work or it’s not,” he says. “We didn’t want to change the pizza, but we wanted to change the rest of the food menu to emphasise what I had seen in these small towns.”
The restaurant is well-known for its extensive specials board which changes every week in line with what Zuzza can get his hands on. The restaurateur estimates 85 to 90 per cent of customers order a dish from the specials menu which follows the same format every week. “We always have something vegetarian, something cold, seafood, meat and larger meat dishes for mains,” he says. “We started the specials menu to take pressure off the pizza because the section would get slammed, so I thought let’s do something that can help them while offering more variety to customers.”
The size of the specials menu is impressive, but La Disfida also offers set pizzas and a permanent menu with the classics. “In the first six months, there were dishes people kept asking for such as zucchini flowers, bocconcini and speck, polenta chips with gorgonzola, calamari and the salumi board,” says Zuzza. “We also have gnocchi and spaghetti with mussels, which were from the original menu — we never took them off.”
Wine forms a huge part of La Disfida’s offering and is something Zuzza developed a passion for at a young age. “When I was 19 and working at The Mixing Pot, a wine group would come in every month,” he says. “They had McGuigan and Max Lake and they would talk about the wines and let me try them.” The restaurateur began researching varieties in his own time and even planned holidays around wine regions to further his knowledge.
While La Disfida’s wine list isn’t strictly Italian, Zuzza decided to hone in on Italian wines in a bid to encourage customers to sample something new. “There are so many grape varieties people don’t know about, so I thought let’s introduce different wines so people can try them,” he says. “We used to offer a lot of wines by the glass and it was hard at first because you had waste, but now people are more willing to try.”
No-shows and customers cancelling reservations are an industry-wide issue many venues struggle with. La Disfida doesn’t offer bookings for parties under five people, but they still have the dilemma of groups not turning up for seatings.
“On many occasions, people just don’t show up — what can you do? If it’s early in the evening, we can cover the table, but if it’s after 8pm, it’s hard.”
Spying a line of customers hanging around a restaurant is a huge drawcard for diners walking or driving by, and La Disfida is one venue that has a constant queue out the door. Restricting the size of bookings allows the restaurant to focus on walk-ins who are split into two categories — those who chow down a pizza in under 30 minutes and others who take their time. “The wait is rarely longer than 25 minutes,” says the restaurateur. “We’re only open for four and a half hours a day, so we have to maximise occupancy to cover the costs of running a restaurant. They’re not getting any cheaper.”
La Disfida will celebrate 10 years in business under Zuzza this year, and the restaurant is as strong as ever. The passion of the staff teamed with fresh, honest and simple food makes for a consistent dining experience — which is not an easy feat and one worth celebrating. When asked if he could run the restaurant for another 10 years, Zuzza responds with a chuckle before answering. “It’s adrenaline — it’s a rush,” he says. “You see food and get excited when you try something new — so, probably, yes.”
This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s February issue. Buy the issue for $9.90 here.