Maitre d’ of the year 2008: Mallory Wall, Café Di Stasio, St Kilda, Vic
11:16AM, Oct 31, 2007
Cast your mind back to 1990 and a young Ronnie Di Stasio is several years into his first solo venture as a restaurateur, the eponymous Café Di Stasio, in what was a part of Melbourne better known for its sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll than its food. With Valerio Nucci cooking, Di Stasio working the floor in his unique manner and diners enjoying the brooding charm of architect Allan Powell's interiors, this fish-out-of-water restaurant is starting to take off. But Di Stasio needs help.
Walking down the street one sunny afternoon comes 21-year-old Mallory Wall, fresh from her first trip overseas, unemployed, and not wanting to go back to hotels again (she'd been working at Melbourne's Menzies at Rialto with chefs such as Ian Curley and Gary Jones prior to hitting London) or a music degree she'd started but now seemed unlikely to finish.
"Hey, bella," says the guy in the doorway of the quirky little Fitzroy Street restaurant. Ronnie had met Wall before; it was the start of something alright.
Now staring down the barrel of a 20th birthday, Café Di Stasio is a rare thing in Australian restaurant circles: a place that is justifiably considered as urbane and relevant now as it was when it opened, a success story. And a lot of that has to do with the evergreen approach of maître d' and manager Mallory Wall, whose passion for - and knowledge of - the gastronomy and culture of Italy, her respect for restaurant tradition and appreciation of contemporary directions, informs much of what happens on a day-to-day basis at the restaurant. As it has for 17 years now, surely one of the longer stints by a front-of-house person at any Australian restaurant.
Wall is just one of those people in the right job, her understanding of service tempered by the quirky, almost club-like atmosphere of the restaurant and the people who favour it, many of whom have become friends. They include artists, designers, architects and many of Melbourne society's more colourful characters for whom pigeonholes present a way-too-confining characterisation. For not only does Wall front one of the great Melbourne restaurants, as familiar with the kitchen's oeuvre as she is with a special Brunello di Montalcino, but she also conducts an orchestra of male waiters whose style, manner and - hopefully - charm you just know is the result of many, many hours spent studying the form in the great and humble restaurants of Italy over the past 17 years. Like the passion of an expatriate for an adopted country, so it is that one of the great Italian restaurants of Australia would be less were it not for an Irish Catholic girl from Mentone whose love of Italy infuses every nook and cranny of her adopted home, Café Di Stasio.
31a Fitzroy St, St Kilda, Vic, (03) 9528 3999.
WORDS JOHN LETHLEAN PORTRAIT DEREK SWALWELL