Meet Riccardo Donnini - owner and operator of Donnini's on Lygon Street. A self-proclaimed fashion and food junkie, this Italian-Australian knows his way around a kitchen and looks good doing it. During our chat, he shared his love for food and how he finds the perfect balance between comfort and style despite his hectic lifestyle.
Describe a day in your life:
Sleep can be hard to come by in hospitality, so I generally set my alarm as late as possible in the morning. I have my fixed morning routine down to a science; living close to work, I’ve found I can get from bed to work in under an hour. Once at work, I have an espresso (or two), check emails, and talk to the kitchen about the menu. I try to sneak a break between services and head to the gym for a workout to energise me for the evening. Back to work to pour myself a glass of wine and enjoy a quick meal before service begins. After a busy evening at Donnini’s, I usually treat myself to a knock-off drink. Typically, I head to the Carlton Yacht Club; a watering-hole and refuge for the hospitality workers of Lygon Street. Sometimes it’s a beer, sometimes it’s a martini, before a relaxing walk home and late to bed, ready to do it all again the next day.
What sort of things do you wear while working? Describe your style at Donnini’s:
Working on the door it’s important to look welcoming and presentable. This entails gelling and styling my hair back into a top knot, also trying to stay on top of the general upkeep of my beard. I’d describe my style at work as active-smart casual. My wardrobe consists of blue denim jeans, a long sleeve shirt, preferably with floral print, and comfortable shoes. I’ve been loving the Dustin boot recently. They’re the perfect blend of classy, yet casual to fit my style. Did I mention comfortable? That’s incredibly important when doing a thousand laps of the restaurant each day…
Kitchens can be pretty messy, has an outfit ever been ruined by food/spills/etc?
All the time! Rouge forks with pomodoro sauce being flung across the dining room by children, red wine stains on the cuffs of my shirt due to a bad habit I have while pouring wine. Trust me I’m on a first name basis with the local dry cleaner.
What about off-duty style? Describe your style outside of the restaurant:
Outside of work I like to dress quite relaxed. Pair of loose ripped jean, a chunky cable knit jumper and a pair of Chelsea boots in winter and active wear throughout the summer months.
Who’s your style icon?
David Beckham, he would definitely be my style guru go-to.
What’s your favourite part of running a restaurant?
Meeting new people everyday, our loyal regulars, working with a great team. After over 60 years in the industry we have accumulated an unwavering regular clientele - some of whom dine with us weekly, without fail. It is always a pleasure seeing them and catching up on their lives. Also, meeting new people and introducing them to our philosophy, food, and the wines we produce ourselves. We have a passionate, loyal, and multi-talented team working at Donnini’s whom I could not do my job without.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about running a restaurant?
You never switch off.
What sets Donnini’s apart from other Italian restaurants on Lygon St?
Handmade artisan producers; it’s not just a job for us, it’s our passion and we’re proud of our name.
What are the unwritten rules of working at Donnini’s?
Recognition is dominion. Make everyone who walks through our door feel welcome and special.
What’s your favourite item on your menu?
I have two: the ‘Piadina’ a traditional flatbread with roast veal, vitello tonnato, and rocket. It’s amazing. And of course, our signature dish, the ‘Tris’. It really is the perfect dish for those that simply can’t decide what they want (aka me). It’s a selection of three pasta: Gnocchi al Pomodoro, Tortelli di Ricotta con Mascarpone and Tagliatelle Ragu Nostro...decadent and delicious.
What are a few of your favourite restaurants in Melbourne? (Besides Donnini’s of course!)
Difficult question…depends on my mood. Just 3 minute walk from home, I’d have to say my local pub the Lincoln Hotel; a gastro pub with cold tap beer and a decent menu. The Flower Drum is our family go-to for special occasions, we enjoyed Dad’s 60th there two months ago. In my opinion the best Chinese in Australia. Kenzan, on Collins Street, if I’m in need of a Japanese fix. But my hands-down favourite eatery in Melbourne is Embla, because it’s just pure class.
Why do you think food/meals are so important to Italian families?
Food brings everyone together, whether it be a Friday night out with your friends or a Sunday lunch at mums. The culture behind teaching the younger generation how to cook is a beautiful tradition, we were lucky enough to be taught by our Nonna Elena.
What’s your all-time favourite Italian dish?
You’re half Italian, half Australian - does your background influence your style?
Well my father is full Italian and my mother is a Polish-Jew, but I was born and raised in Melbourne. With so many different cultures blending our house was always crazy - in a good way, but still crazy. To be honest, my fashion doesn’t really reflect my heritage, Australian or Italian. Our family has always been obsessed with two things: food and footy. The fashion thing just came naturally to me, I guess. Less of a family influence, and more of a way to express myself and stand out in huge multicultural family.
If you had one final meal, what would it be?
Well...I’d start with a dozen freshly shucked oysters and some Beluga Caviar paired with a Jeroboam of Krug 1996, followed by Peking duck and a six pack of Tsingtao. My entree would be a dirty burger with the lot, including egg and pineapple with a bottle of current vintage Rieslingfreak. Continuing on to my first course, a 500g plate Tortellini with Super Pana and a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru. My main course would include some Foie Gras finished off with a Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982. Buono!