Valerio was suggested to me by a good friend, Sarah, who lives in Sydney and is a friend of Valerio’s wife, Sally. Valerio’s story is a great example of following your passion and doing something you really love – even if you don’t start off that way…
I was born in December 1976 in Tuscany then I moved to Milan for 17 years because of my father’s job and then finally we moved back to Tuscany and I stayed there until 2006.
My parents, my brother, my uncles, aunties, cousins are all in Italy. I moved here in 2006 because I wanted to learn English. Everyone asked me why I didn’t go to London but my father said “why you don’t go to Australia, we’ve got relatives there”. My grandfather is from Sicily and then after the Second World War they moved to Tuscany for work and one of my grandfather’s brothers from my father’s side moved to Australia after the Second World War. They are in Morwell. So I said to my father “okay I’ll go over there” so they helped me to settle a bit. My plan was stay here for six months, to learn English. I lived in Balaclava because my second cousin who is my age was living there. My job in Italy before moving was import/export where I worked for six years. The intention was to learn English to upgrade my position in the company. I didn’t know any English at all. My best friend was my English/Italian dictionary. So I came here and then I went back to Italy after six months.
Food has always been my passion. My mum she always tells me that when I was probably 5, she would ask me “what do you want to be when you’re grown up” and I always said a cook or a fireman. And then I went to study accounting, so I’m an accountant! I worked as an accountant for a little while but I didn’t like it. So then I changed to different jobs, different work, I worked for Piaggio where they were making Vespas. But in that time I always worked in restaurants because I liked the environment and I liked the people, I liked to share food, I like to drink wine, it was the best place to be. Make new friends, see people.
In those days we’d share food at the table, it brings back people’s memories and there’s always conversation, you share a lot of things with food.
So when my work suggested I needed to learn English, I took leave without pay and came here for six months. When I went back home just with my backpack (so I left everything in Australia) my parents were shocked. They said “what are you doing?” and I said “I want to go back to Australia because I think I can do something there”. It was less risky than in Italy because Italy’s economy was just starting to go down, people were starting to get fired at work. So let’s say I did it at the right moment.
So I went back to work, I resigned, my boss was shocked. Sold my car and everything else and came back here with my money and I started working in a restaurant in Windsor as a waiter, then I started cooking in a professional kitchen for the first time because one of the chefs was sick. When they asked me to cook for the first time for customers I was a bit scared because I had not done any formal training. I’d cooked with my grandmother, my mum and at the restaurant where I used to work. When I started cooking for people it was a completely different thing; it was the pressure, timing, a lot of things but it’s a good feeling, I loved it. I liked the pressure.
The restaurant in Windsor is where I actually met Sally (my wife) because she was one of the customers. She came for dinner with a friend of hers and we met up. That was in 2008 and now we’ve got three kids! Leonardo, he’s 6, Edoardo (Eddie) is 5 and Gaia is one. We started to date each other, it was funny because she used to work during the day and I used to work during the night but we shared weekends off so we started seeing each other once a week, twice a week.
We got through it and then I met my father in law, he always had his own businesses and he said to me “you should open your own business” and I said “I can’t afford to”. So he pushed me a little bit. I always had this friend, his name is Pino, he’s always been like a brother to me and he is now a partner here. But with help from my father in law we opened our first restaurant. Why Hampton? I came because the previous owner was Lebanese and my father in law was Lebanese too and I think the real estate agent was Lebanese so this just came up. We were looking here, even Beaumaris or Black Rock. My father in law lived in Mordialloc and my wife grew up in Beaumaris so they were familiar with this area. I really like to detach a little bit from the city because where I’m from is a city but it’s not a huge city so it’s more like a big town or village and it’s like a village here.
We gave it this name, La Svolta, which means the turning point.
I love that I can bring the food of my home to people and they enjoy it, it makes me really happy.
We’ve got an amazing staff; they do an amazing job. I always focus to be traditional with the food because we like to give people the experience that for us is normal. I think it’s even nice for us to recreate the feeling so we try to not miss home that much. Because even after ten years…like today I had one of those days where I was feeling a bit sad because I miss my family. Mum and Dad were here in 2015, we try to go once a year but last year we didn’t go, we haven’t been back since Christmas 2014. It’s hard with the kids starting school and the business as well.
My grandfather is 102, we went to Italy in 2014 for his 100th. When I was there my grandmother passed away a few days before his birthday, she was 84. She had diabetes, we had a Christmas lunch and everyone was going home, we were upstairs at my grandparents house. We were going to take the kids home and she went to kiss them and she grabbed one of them to kiss and she fell off the chair and she broke her hip. She went to the hospital to have her hip repaired but didn’t survive the operation.
My older son was at Brighton Primary but is now at St Joan of Arc. There was no option for religion classes at Brighton Primary. My wife and I have been baptised and want him to at least know who is God and then if he doesn’t want to go to church then it’s his choice, but at least he has the chance to choose what he wants and know who’s God. A lot of time we’d say thank God and he’d be “who’s God?” I don’t go to church but I’ve been brought up in a church environment. My grandparents used to go to church every Sunday.
Every Saturday morning I take my oldest to soccer. Soccer is my favourite but he likes sport in general, he likes footy, he likes soccer, he likes tennis but he loves soccer since the European Cup. We’d been getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to watch the games. As soon as he gets up in the morning, he asks me to put the soccer on. The middle one, Eddie, wants to go and play footy. Then there’s swimming twice a week so there is a lot of stuff to do.
My mum encouraged me to study something safe.
I still get homesick and it’s never going to stop. We do a lot of Skype and face time. I miss the people and sometimes a bit of the environment, the culture. Here everything needs to be planned, even for a normal day, if you want to catch up with somebody, you need to make a time. In Italy there’s a certain place you know you go and you find people without even calling them. Or people come and knock at your door and come and visit. It doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it was the same here I don’t know. I say to my kids, I used to go out with my soccer ball under my arm and come back full of bruises and dirt, that was my day, it was the best. There is too much technology for kids now, we try to limit the technology for our kids.
My mum encouraged me to study something safe. So I studied accounting because afterwards you’ve got your job, you’re going to be secure, you’ve got your wages at the end of the month. But it wasn’t really what I wanted. I asked my mum before I moved to Australia – because she’s very good at cooking, she worked at restaurants herself, she still does sometimes because she loves it – and I said “why wouldn’t you open something?” She was so petrified, she said “if it doesn’t work we lose the money”. She had me at 22 and my father was a policeman and they moved him to Milan. They didn’t know anyone and she was only 20. The money wasn’t enough and the wives of my father’s colleagues used to meet up at the end of the month and say “I’ve got $5 in my pocket, I’ve got $1, I’ve got $3, I’ve got $2 let’s put it together and go shopping for dinner”. It was struggle to get to the end of the month so that’s why my mum said to do accounting and don’t take so much risks. I know she did it for love not because she didn’t trust me. She wanted to make sure I was going to be fine. I understand now with 3 kids, I think in a different way already. But certainly I try to back them up all the time but I would push them to do what they love. Even if they have to do something in the beginning, something they don’t like just to make some money, to put some money aside or even if they wanted a car “I can help you buy the car but you have to understand the value of the money, how you get the money and working for it”.
We just opened another little business in Elwood, a Roman Style pizzeria, very different to La Svolta, La Svolta is our first business. It has changed a little over the years. In the beginning it was a bit hard to introduce our food here. We had people that were asking for pineapple pizza! Some people would say the customer is always right and I’d say “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m saying we don’t do this style otherwise we become like anybody else’s restaurant. We just want to keep the tradition, that’s what we’re trying to do and I’m not saying you’re wrong”.
It was pretty busy straight away but not like now. The clientele from the beginning to now has completely changed. The age-group has changed and a lot of Italians come here which I think is a big compliment. We couldn’t fit everyone in so we have two sittings and it works. We have lots of families, especially the early sitting. Every Wednesday we have an Australian/Italian duo which has gone very well, they’ve been playing for us for about five or six years, almost from the beginning.
So what we’re trying to do is keep the traditional recipes. It’s not fine dining, we like the place to look pretty but not too sophisticated. The main thing for me is the flavours because everyone can make a bolognese or seafood pasta. But we keep the traditional favours, so that’s the main thing for me.
For me the biggest challenges is the consistency to make my customers happy so I give them a reason to come back. We employ a certain number of people who are Italian because they’ve got an accent and a knowledge of the food, it’s more natural. But we had a lot of people that couldn’t speak English and that was a big problem; they were good in the job but not good in communication. So now what we do is we’re trying to keep some Italian and then we get local people as well and they end up speaking a bit of Italian. They’re getting used to our shouting because we shout a lot. In the beginning, they used to get a little bit scared because they thought we were fighting but in fact when we work, we shout. Some are there because they’re going to school and they’re just doing part time jobs. They love it, which is good for me. For us happy staff is a big issue, I feel like I’ve got 15 kids. Sometimes you need to be a psychologist, it’s not easy so I try and share the load with the key staff as well. Every single position in the restaurant is important, it’s all connected. My staff feel secure when I’m around, they like having me around.
I love that I can bring the food of my home to people and they enjoy it, it makes me really happy.
You can view the La Svolta website here.