Theirs is a feast of sto­ries

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - LOOKING BACK -

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

found out

Pic­ture: MOYA STEVENS

Tony and Di Sassi. In­set: in the early ‘90s

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