Bruce Elder breaks bread with Stefano di Pieri in Mildura, a decade after he steered the town to fame.
Every country town dreams of finding some attraction that will deliver barrow-loads of tourist dollars. They build slightly ridiculous big things, invest in walking tracks, open museums and fantasise about someone building a hall of fame celebrating one more Australian icon.
Few country towns are as lucky as Mildura. A decade ago it was a typical rural service town, on the Victorian side of the Murray River only a short distance from the Murray-Darling confluence, surrounded by vineyards and orchards. In terms of tourism, it was a little too far from the capital cities. Then everything changed with one man and one television program.
In the 13-part ABC series A Gondola On The Murray in the late '90s, a self-taught cook named Stefano di Pieri mooched around his beloved Mildura region, often on bicycle, singing the praises of local asparagus and olive oil, sultanas and blood oranges, raspberries and wine. And he used this produce in Italian dishes simple enough to be copied by domestic cooks.
This was long before Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Two Fat Ladies et al. A decade later, di Pieri has continued to prosper and Mildura has become something of a foodie oasis on the edge of the desert.
You can devote your entire stay in Mildura to enjoying nothing but di Pieri experiences.
At the hub is his renowned Stefano's Restaurant, which has been awarded two hats by The Age Good Food Guide for the past three years. The day might start with breakfast at Stefano's Cafe Bakery, where you can buy some of his freshly baked bread and a range of chutneys, jellies and relishes. Then pop next door to view local art at Stefano's Gallery 25. Buy some of Stefano's wines from his cellar door and bar and have lunch at Stefano's microbrewery on Langtree Avenue. Dine in the evening, of course, at Stefano's restaurant and then climb the stairs and spend the night in the Grand Hotel, owned and run by Stefano's father-in-law.
Until recently, you could even ply the Murray on Stefano's paddle-steamer but it is being rested at the moment.
We sit in his cafe over a lunchtime pasta dish of surpassing loveliness and di Pieri explains how A Gondola On The Murray affected his life. Born in Treviso, near Venice, he migrated in 1974, married Donata Carrazza in 1991 and moved to her home town of Mildura. Her father, Don Carrazza, owned and ran the town's Grand Hotel. Almost immediately, di Pieri, enamoured of the quality of local produce, formed a happy alliance with his father-in-law that led, progressively, to the upgrading of the Grand Hotel, the opening of Stefano's Restaurant in the basement and the development of food and wine businesses.
"I have at home some of the cuttings of newspapers and they are in a pile that is a metre high," he gestures, "And that was just what I could collect. It was enormous.
"You have to remember that at the time, it came literally as the first of the Australian home-made food shows. There had been The Galloping Gourmet. It was really the first of the new-generation of cooking shows.
"The impact on my restaurant was enormous. Some people come with the expectation that they will find a hearty Italian meal and others think they come to get their sophisticated three-hat god-knows-what. We've always steered a very simple course.
"My premise has always been, don't try to be up here," he raises his hands in the air with suitable drama, "because it is unsustainable and financially it is not viable. This is part of a family operation and there is no room for flights of fancy. You can't let people down because there's more than one person involved. It is a very sobering thought. So we do degustation. I didn't want to do a flash in the pan and die in the arse after a few years."
Di Pieri established a superb restaurant that, 17 years later, is always full and booked ahead. The neighbouring five or six restaurants on Langtree Avenue vie for the crumbs that fall when Stefano's is full.
Di Pieri, who once stood for the Victorian Parliament, is an astute operator who understands the dynamic of a country town and the eating habits of travellers. "I always ask myself: visualise a traveller going from Melbourne to Broken Hill," he explains as we cross the road in front of the Grand Hotel and walk down to the banks of the Murray. "He's spending a night here. If I manage to put on his table a clean tablecloth, a nice glass, good wine, some salt, some bread that we baked during the day, a clean bowl of pasta, a little bit of meat and a dessert and a glass of water - what else do you want? If you want more than that, you've come to the wrong place."
Di Pieri, like everyone living along the Murray, is trying to cope with the seemingly endless drought. The big dry and changed fishing regulations mean supplies of Murray cod and Murray perch, once regulars on the menu, have dried up. Even local yabbies have disappeared.
"Once you go to a place like Mildura, you expect a bit of Murray River produce," di Pieri says. "We used to have two or three local fishermen who we could access and they gave us a very strong local identity. They have gone. All the fishermen have pulled out. It was due to legitimate environmental concern.
"Hopefully one day the river will come back," he says, with optimism. "Nowadays there are people growing Murray cod commercially. So that will develop. And at the moment there is plenty of goat, good local lamb, which is tender, still plenty of beef."
And that is his secret: di Pieri is inventive, tireless, hard-working and generous to a fault. His passion and enthusiasm are, in a very real way, helping sustain Mildura. Di Pieri has created a magnet for food-lovers, promoting the region at a time when the river and the city are doing it tough.
The degustation changes nightly and is distinctly Italian. As The Age Good Food Guide opined in 2005: "Remarkable produce handled with confident reverence." Open for dinner Monday-Saturday in the cellars of the Grand Hotel, Langtree Avenue. Phone (03) 5023 0511. Advance bookings required.
Stefano's Cafe Bakery
Start the day with calabrese eggs poached in peperonata with sausage. Or fried eggs, Italian pork sausages, cavolo nero, tomato chutney and toast. For lunch try tripe parmigiani on cannelloni beans or tagliolini pasta with truffle oil, organic poached eggs and parmesan. Open daily. 27 Deakin Avenue. Phone (03) 5021 3627.
Stefano's Gallery 25
Next door to the cafe, a changing exhibition of local art works that operates in conjunction with La Trobe University. 25 Deakin Avenue. Phone (03) 5021 3627.
Stefano's Cellar Door & Bar
Featuring local wines, particularly di Pieri's own vintages, which are notable for their use of lesser-known varieties such as pinot grigio and sangiovese and Mildura Brewery beers. 25 Deakin Avenue. Phone (03) 5021 3627.
Mildura Brewery Pub
Try beers with names like Mallee Bull and Murray Honey Wheat in this stylishly converted cinema (pictured). 20 Langtree Avenue. Phone (03) 5022 5399.
Quality Hotel Mildura Grand
Owned by di Pieri's father-in-law, Don Carrazza. Rooms from $160. Two-night packages, including dinner at Stefano's, from $295 a person. Phone 1800 034 228 or see qualityhotelmilduragrand.com.au.