Theirs is a feast of stories
The influence of Tony Sassi’s mother and grandmother on his life and career cannot be understated.
In the cold winters of Vasto, Italy on the Adriatic coast, the Sassi family would spend much time in the kitchen where Tony learned to appreciate fresh, local produce and how simple, mindful cooking can bring joy.
“I remember on very cold mornings, my mother would make me some zabaglione – egg yolk whisked and cooked with a good dash of Masala or similar and send me off to school,” Tony said, “and living on the coast gave me a real appreciation of fresh seafood.”
Tony’s family moved to Australia when he was 16 years old and by his late 20s he already had established his first restaurant – a trattoria, La Cantina, in Bourke Street, Melbourne.
“My restaurant was between Florantino’s and Pelegrini’s however I was cooking more cucina rustica dishes with less formal influence,” he said.
One of Tony’s first customers was a journalist from the
and obviously he spread the word among colleagues and friends.
“Very soon we had lots of journos coming in along with parliamentarians and actors, and theatre goers would dine here and then come back after the show for dessert.”
Tony’s food differed from others in town in that he used a more distinctive style, reminiscent of his mother’s and grandmother’s cooking.
“I added my own touch and personality into the cooking I knew from home,” he said.
After eight successful years in Bourke Street, Tony moved on to open other restaurants in Clifton Hill and Carlton.
“I met Di in the early ’80s and at the end of 1987 we sold up everything, looking for another opportunity.
“Lured by the Skase venture, we went for a long drive to Port Douglas, met a real estate agent and he told us about a restaurant and motel that was up for sale.”
This establishment, Island Point Restaurant and Motel was “dilapidated” but was soon the dining area was refurbished and became one of the places to dine in Port Douglas.
“We had lots of famous people as regulars such as Paul Keating when PM and his family, and other stars such as Mick Jagger would arrive without a booking.
“Di and I often had no idea who was hereas the bookings were in fictitious names and we relied on our staff to let us know.
“I remember one night when the head waiter came to me and said we had Batman in – and of course he was talking about Val Kilmer.
“Val Kilmer came in nearly every night for two weeks ‘in disguise’ – which was a bit funny in that he wore a big heavy coat and sunglasses which made him even more conspicuous,” Tony laughed.
“They were of course the glory days of Skase and Port really was an international destination for many of the rich and famous including many great golfers.”
Apparently Table 4 or ‘the corner table on the balcony’ was the most sought-after.
“When Peter Allen came for dinner, he said to Di “íf only we had a piano”, he would have kicked on with his friends, so Di bought me a baby grand for my next birthday.
“We had lots of impromptu shows from guests,” Tony explained, and when Simply Red came to dine, Mick Hucknell insisted his pianist played while he ate.”
According to Tony, restaurateurs’ discretion is important when hosting famous guests; he would not provide more names.
There was an acknowledged ‘downside’ to the Island Point property – the motel rooms were clean but rudimentary at best, according to Tony.
“The view from the property was spectacular and the motel rooms only had a flimsy curtain between them and the balcony,” he said.
“We had a very sophisti- cated woman fly in from New York and was captivated by the view from the balcony of her room but took one look at the curtain and said she couldn’t stay there – so we took her to the Sheraton.”
The Island Point business was recommended by Lonely Planet so inquiries were coming in from all over the world.
“It was a wonderful, mad time in Port Douglas in those days,” Tony said, “but then high interest rates and the pilots’ strike struck and survival became very stressful but we continued to have as much fun as possible in the upright position.”
Survive they did and in 1994 they were presented with The Best Restaurant in Australia by the Australian Tourism Commission.
In 1996, Di and Tony sold the Island Point business and returned to Melbourne and established restaurants in Collins Street and at the Casino but after 5 years were offered an opportunity to return to Port Douglas.
“In 2001 we established Sassi Cucina on the corner of Wharf and Macrossan Streets and following a fallout with business partners, we were approached by the developers of the Balé Resort to open a fine dining restaurant in-house but by 2009 we were looking to open our own place in town,” Tony said.
After a brief time in Grant Street, they relocated back to the Macrossan site where Sassi Cucina still operates today.
“We have fabulous floor and kitchen staff and for a restaurant to be successful you need to be consistent with both food and service,” he said.
“Yes Port was a much more colourful, bohemian place in the ’80s and early ’90s, but it is still very unique,” Tony said, “and in this industry you have to be ready to adapt to new trends both in food and clientele.”
“We really love Port and enjoy the vibrancy of the place – and the weather. Although it isn’t the party town it used to be, it still is a great place to live and work.”
Port Douglas is a popular visitor destination now but back in the ’80s it was a mecca for national and international celebrities, and Tony Sassi was their restaurateur of choice, as
Tony and Di Sassi. Inset: in the early ‘90s