After running his eponymous Canberra restaurant for 29 years, he shocked the industry—and dedicated customers—when he moved on.
My parents came from the Italian Alps where slow-food was the favourite style of cooking. They migrated to Australia in the ’60s, and eventually settled in Canberra. As a young kid, I remember sitting on the bench, watching Mum [‘Mama’ Valentina] make gnocchi and lasagna. That’s probably where my love of food originated.
When I was 20, I went to Italy for a holiday and was inspired by all the cool cafes and espresso bars. Soon after [in 1987], I opened the Corner Coffee Shop at Bailey’s Corner arcade in Civic, embracing the meeting place culture. There wasn’t enough room for a kitchen, so Mum would cook lasagna, carrot cake and her famous tiramisu at home.
My brother, Danny, soon joined the business and we expanded by taking over a gelateria and a jewellery store. In 1991, we redeveloped and rebranded the business, changing the name to Tosolini’s. We also opened another cafe, Tosolini’s Manuka, as well as an espresso bar at Woden Plaza Centre.
At Tosolini’s, I took more of a role out the front. It’s important for every customer to be well looked after as soon as they walk through the door. That’s what I’m good at doing. The culture I’ve always embraced was one of comfort rather than exclusivity. In my world, you’re not just in a business, you’re in my lounge room; everyone here has to be
It’s all about the initial experience of being greeted with a sincere happy smile—that’s what I do. I’m certainly not a celebrity chef. I just love to make you feel warm and welcome when entering my place.
We eventually sold Tosolini’s Manuka and the espresso bar after Danny moved to Sydney in the late ’90s. He worked for high-end restaurants, including Otto, Buon Ricardo and Pendolino, but he returned two years ago when our mum was very ill. Fortunately, she’s done a complete 180 and she’s back working two or three hours per day. All our chefs have embraced her passion for slow food.
Every day is different in hospitality. You have to keep your staff motivated, and you are always giving your best. You’ve got to listen and engage; this is the most important thing. We had 25 or 30 people under us, including our catering business.
When running the business, the engine room—the kitchen—is the key element. This filters down to your staff and your floor and what you’re trying to create. You can have a place that has a good vibe but the engine room needs to run efficiently.
Tosolini’s ran for 29 years. We had already developed a successful catering business so we were fortunate to continue that. Then we started thinking, “What’s the next move?” and before long, one door closed and another opened. We opened Tosolinis Pop-up Restaurant at the Italo Australian Club in Forrest. It was the right time for Danny as he was looking for a new project. I’ve been taking a bit of a backseat role, just helping him out with consulting. After being in the business for so many years, it was time for me to look after myself!
Nowadays, when you open a business, you have to look at your target market and do plenty of research. However, if you give good old-fashioned service with a smile, the customer will always come back. It’s really satisfying. The food is important but a genuine front-of-house feeling makes people feel good and that’s what it’s all about.
Hospitality is a fantastic—but rather demanding—industry. At the moment, I’m talking to investors who have asked me to run a division of their side of the business, but I’m not moving into anything too quickly. I know that there are always opportunities out there. What’s around the corner? Wait and see!