IN CONVERSATION WITH NINO ZOCCALI
As we begin to exhale after what has been an incredibly challenging year; we can’t help but look forward to the return of the simple things in life that we have all missed so much, none more so that dining out on delicious cuisine at our favourite restaurant. We caught up recently with leading chef and owner of two of Sydney’s finest venues, the Restaurant Pendolino & LaRosa, Nino Zoccali, to chat food, flavour, style and how they’ve adapted to the challenges of 2020.

This year has definitely been challenging for everyone; particularly for those in the Hospitality sector, talk to us about how you’re doing & how you’ve adapted during this challenging time?


It has definitely been a very, very challenging year for all restaurants, but particularly for those in the Sydney CBD. Even worse for Melbourne, my heart goes out to those guys.

We did a range of things like everyone else at the beginning of lockdown. We ran our Online Wine Store, which was, and continues to be, very successful. It was hard for us to do takeaway or delivery because we’re in the centre of the city and not really close to high density residential areas, so that made it really difficult for us.

Re-opening the restaurants after lockdown, we had to adapt and change our offering. We’ve been limited in the numbers we can have in both the restaurants with restricted trading. In La Rosa The Strand, our sister restaurant to The Restaurant Pendolino, we thought we’d do something fun. We launched a pop up British Italian Steakhouse called The Milan Cricket Club. It’s a concept that I’d had stored away that we decided to do now. We have teamed up with Chef Nik Hill to do that, and it’s been a lot of fun.

We’ve got plenty of innovation going on. Things have changed, our business is looking very different to where it was 12 months ago and there’s been some real insight for us. It’s been so challenging in some ways, but it’s been really exciting in other ways. We’re still managing the challenges and we’d be lying if we said we’re not concerned about what the reality of trading in the CBD will look like in 6 months & into the next few years…


Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant


One thing we have been witness to since COVID is an increase in at-home dining; many restaurants adapted their business models to accommodate this with premium delivery options; how has your restaurant group embraced this trend & do you think this type of dining is here to stay?


We really embraced this with wine, and to a lesser extent with pasta. We’re not really set up for take away or home delivery of highly perishable items, but it’s something that we’ll keep in mind going forward as we continue to adapt.

Is it here to stay?  Well, this is a really difficult question to answer. ‘I’m not sure’ is the most honest answer I can give. There has to have been a reasonable amount of stickiness with people changing their habits. It’s really going to depend on how many people can/will/want to work from home going forward & how people continue to adapt their lives around that; so it’s hard to say right now…



Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant


As the head chef and owner of one of Sydney’s top restaurants, I wonder if you still enjoy the process of cooking; do you do this at home? What is your favourite meal to cook at home?


I spend a lot of time working with Chefs, in and out of the restaurants, but I still do enjoy cooking at home. It’s often where I try out new recipes which is a lot of fun and where I get the feedback from my very strong critics who are my wife and son. Thankfully, they seem to enjoy my cooking.


Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant


Rumour has it, that you have a new apprentice in the kitchen; I hear your son has joined the family business – is that something you had always hoped for all along?


Yes, that’s true! COVID has delivered us another staff member in the form of my son, Luca who is 19. He was having a gap year, and planning to go off and make wine in Australia and then Italy. The terrible bushfires put a stop to the first part of his plans and then the pandemic hit, so there was no travel on the cards. He was working with us prior to this year, so it was a natural state of play for him to keep working with us through this period. I’m not sure if it is going to be a long-term thing but I definitely enjoy having him around. It’s a pleasure for me to see him every day.


Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant


How do you approach the process of preparing a menu, what comes first – the recipe or the ingredients?

It’s a combination of two main factors. Firstly, it’s about who we are cooking for. We always want to cook things that people are really going to like, or certain diners will really like (we know enough to understand that we can’t please everyone). Then it’s really driven by the amazing produce that we want to profile. We go out looking for products to fill a hole in a menu or sometimes we’ll create space on a menu because we really like an ingredient or a product. That’s what we like to do. It’s really a combination approach.

Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant


As the birthplace of our Brand, The Strand Arcade holds a very special place in our hearts here at Farage, what was it about this centre that you found appealing enough to open your restaurant here?

Well it was definitely the building that brought us here. My wife and business partner, we’re both great appreciators of architecture and the Victorian arcade is a beautiful era that we love. We thought it was a good place to create what we wanted to achieve with the Pendolino restaurant. It’s one of those things, sometimes there are places that choose you rather than you choose it. It was a really great fit for us and also the boutique nature of the stores in here. It’s a very experiential thing to come into the Strand. We believe the journey of the restaurant experience starts when you walk into the building and descend up to the second floor.


Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant

How would you describe your off-duty style?

My off-duty style is pretty casual, to be honest. I’m into quality rather than trend or what’s current, so quality and comfort reign. Most of my week is spent speaking to a lot of different people, so when it comes to my down time, I’m pretty content at home.


Nino Zoccali sitting in the Pendolino Restaurant

How do you prefer to spend your weekends? What would a perfect day off consist of for you?

Sunday is really the only day that is really free for me at the moment. Saturdays are a pretty important day in the restaurant business. I just like the idea that there are no deadlines, no getting ready for lunch service or dinner service. The down time is really important. I often go for a ride on my bike and make something beautiful for my family to eat or going out for lunch or an early dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants in Sydney.


Watch the video interview with Nino Zoccali: