This is one of the first names Chef Greg Malouf breathed to me the moment I mentioned going to Melbourne and meeting a few chefs.
Of course, there were a few other highly credible friends he listed off to me but Matteo Pignatelli was a non-compromise.
As my dining companion and I arrived at Melbourne restaurant Matteo’s on a Wednesday evening, it was absolutely buzzing. It felt like a night on the town with a party of 100 humming at the back of the restaurant, what appeared to be a private dining party in the room to the left, and an Australian weather celeb with a partner happily munching away in the corner. (This last one I only noticed when I received a sharp elbow nudge to the ribs from my partner in crime.)
I always say a brand needs to have heart and soul and Matteo’s most certainly has that in the form of restaurateur and owner Matteo Pignatelli.
Wit, charm, and a cracking sense of humour ooze from Mr. Pignatelli who quickly and boldly highlighted that he was not a chef (my error!) but in fact uses both sides of his brain. This was said with utter humour and likely a dig at his chef buddies (he knows everyone you would ever need and want to know in town). At one point during the evening, I asked how he recruits chefs (always tricky) and he said that it’s quite easy simply because he’s not a chef!
“Chefs don’t want to work for chef owners because they don’t get the limelight.”
Matteo has Head Chef Buddha Lo (who joined the team earlier this year) at the helm of the kitchen. The cuisine, which has been based around a broader French-Asian theme in the past, is now stronger on the Asian influence and it’s a refreshing change with interesting flavour combinations!
Matteo Pignatelli is the ultimate host, immediately putting you at ease with entertaining conversation and lighthearted jokes. Before you know it, you’ve devoured a few dishes of the fabulous Asian-fusion food (like prawn ravioli with Penang laksa sauce, white miso-marinated black cod, and pan-fried Parisienne gnocchi with curried grapes and cauliflower sauce), imbibed in the most delectable Negronis (perhaps not the brightest idea one night before a 17-hour flight), and your cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing so much.
The restaurant is one of those places you make a venue for the evening. Opened in 1994, it has great vibes, a sophisticated style, perfectly selected music, and is refined but with a cheeky twist. Plus, with a tram stop right outside, it really helps you embrace the Melbournian way of life!
Matteo Pignatelli celebrates life unabashedly and with great gusto. Case in point: his Rat Pack evening with the Ozzie hospitality version of the Rat Pack, aka Raymond Capaldi, Greg Malouf, Saraid Carey (Lauren Bacall), and himself.
Why have the Rat Pack party? I asked.
He simply replied:
Why not, indeed! So, whilst sipping on Matteo’s special Negroni concoction, we learnt a bit more about the brand that has made the brand.
How did you learn your trade? What’s your background?
I was born into it! My family owns a pizza/fish and chips/hamburgers/roast chicken take-away.
I started helping my dad on pizzas from the age of 12. My older sister Rosa was on fish and chips, my younger sister Michelina on hamburgers and my younger brother Bonnifaccio on roast chickens.
Then I got sick of working for my parents as slave labour so studied hard and obtained a degree in Accounting. I worked as a junior accountant for nine months and HATED it!
My mum was working at a restaurant in Carlton called Masani and her boss offered me a part-time job. From there, I learned every aspect of the restaurant business. I even ended up enrolling in a diploma of Business of Hospitality Management at William Angliss Institute of TAFE. Luckily I could get quite a few exemptions because of my Accounting degree.
Running my own business came naturally as I grew up in the business.
What has been the number one secret to your success?
Surrounding myself with people better than me! And understanding numbers and PEOPLE! A rare creature!
I read that you change chefs every 2 years which has now increased to 4. What’s your reasoning behind this?
Restaurants need to ‘evolve’. People’s tastes change, styles change, society changes!
I didn’t want the chef attached to the business. By changing them, the focus was on the Matteo’s brand and not the chef. Customers were happy with the change of chef. What was important was that the front of house stayed the same.
What keeps your regulars coming back time and time again?
Knowing their names and caring about them!
Our motto… We LOVE MY CUSTOMERS
We are grateful because these people come to our establishment; they make it possible for us to live a very agreeable lifestyle. I am going to give them the best I possibly can.
Could you name one culinary legend who has inspired you throughout your career?
What’s your secret behind creating your menu—where you gain inspiration?
Looking at the classics and making them modern!
What’s the number one culinary trend you cannot stand?
Smokes, smears, air, and syringes!!!!
In your eyes, what’s the most underrated ingredient?
Which ingredient gives you the most diversity?
What makes you a bad boy in the kitchen?
Not backing your team
Your dream table of 5 people would consist of who…
Food critics are…
You launched Matteo’s in 1994. If you could rewind, what’s the one piece of advice you would give yourself?
Don’t put your name on the front door!
Can you tell us a little bit more info about www.ShitCustomersSay.com…
It amazes me the things that some customers say!!! Don’t they realise I want them to be happy and come back???? Help me help you!
Best restaurant in your neighbourhood (apart from yours:) )
I’ve read that all things get better with age, including women and wine. So, please name your favourite wine…
Grand Cru Burgundy! Particularly Domaine Francois Raveneau Chablis and Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin…And Negroni’s!
Piece of advice for emerging chefs
Do your sums and get a s**t hot front of house person if you can’t do it yourself!
Your life mantra
“You are only as good as your last meal” and “You only live once” and “Success in the absence of failure”
3 words to describe you
How about four…Leo, people-person, detailed, independent
What a character! With someone like Matteo Pignatelli behind the wheel, it’s no wonder that Matteo’s has been going strong in the Melbourne food scene for the last 20+ years.
And now I’ve got a hankering for another Negroni!
533 Brunswick St, North Fitzroy, Melbourne