This was the most painstaking transcription I've ever done because the hour-long interview was conducted amidst a symphony of cafe and kitchen noises — and I had to distinguish between three voices I wasn't familiar with. But it was also one of my favourite pieces to write for the sheer challenge of capturing the characters, verve and loquaciousness of Ambrosino and the Paradiso brothers in approximately one thousand words.
What do a barber, a poet and a hedge fund manager have to do with Fratelli Paradiso? Not much, you would think. The cafe, restaurant, bar and bakery — a local institution entering into its twelfth year in Potts Point — does little to conjure any images of these occupations.
But they are lives lived in lieu of the current ones; the paths taken had the three men who own and run Fratelli Paradiso and 10 William Street decided not to take the plunge. The trio in question are the melodically named Marco Ambrosino, Enrico Paradiso and Giovanni ‘Johnny’ Paradiso.
Ambrosino is broad-set and stoic. In contrast, the Paradiso brothers are lanky with salt-and-pepper hair who both speak in lyrical, meandering sentences. It’s fitting that Johnny recalls his alternate life to be that of a poet bent on wanderlust. “At that time I was a loose cannon, I was a gypsy,” he says. “I may well have gone on being a gypsy.”
His brother, however, had more practical intentions: “I’d own a barber shop. And just have a bench out the front – the old-school ones you'd see in Italy — in a little town. Unfortunately, it'd just involve men. There's no women. You'd talk about women and things like that. Still, that’s what I could do all day.”
Ambrosino, in contrast, seems to speak in straight-shooting sentences. But it’s the measurement of his speech, rather than its substance, which imparts this impression. Johnny offers up his premonition: “Marco would have been a wealthy MBA banker, living in Vaucluse, a hedge funder…”
“Divorced twice,” Ambrosio muses.
"He would have been wealthy. Really wealthy," claims Enrico. "But then he met us."
There’s a mythical quality about Fratelli Paradiso’s emergence from such hazy waywardness to end up a pioneer and stalwart of Sydney dining. At the turn of the millennium, the Paradiso brothers had sold Melbourne restaurant Mamadu, where they had grown up and were spending a year on sabbatical, trying to figure out their next move. A tip-off sent them to Potts Point. They met Ambrosino in those early days and in the time since, they’ve carved out a piece of local history.
The suburb’s landscape has changed immensely and irrevocably in the last five years. But 12 years ago? It may well have been a foreign country.
“It was quite bohemian, but slowly it’s becoming quite gentrified,” observes Giovanni.
“We used to get drunks sleeping in the front door, we used to get broken into constantly,” says Enrico.
“We’d be broken into once or twice a week,” Giovanni adds.
For the Paradisos, Sydney was an entirely new land, geographically and psychologically. “Coming from…the lanes of Carlton and Fitzroy and Brunswick and moving to this big, new vast land, it was like coming to America,” says Enrico
“The Harbour Bridge was like the Statue of Liberty,” recalls Johnny.
Starting in a new city with a different code of hospitality conduct (“All we knew about Sydney was that people wore lots of white and drove convertibles…and had boats”) worked to their advantage. Things were done out of preference, not deference to others. The Fratelli Paradiso venture was defiantly unique.
And yet so many of the elemental differences that defined Fratelli Paradiso have been absorbed into Sydney’s dining culture. You wouldn't flinch at the lack of menus in favour of a chalkboard now, but then it seemed a radical thing. The menu written in Italian is still a specific quirk, as is the breadth of its hours and offerings – not to mention the insouciant ambition it takes to actually pull it off. The trio are deliberately uninterested in dining trends, preferring to cultivate their own ideas and spaces with that same fixed focus that allowed them to challenge and change Sydney.
“I think in this industry it's really important to worry about what you're doing – no-one else. We were taught by some of the best restaurateurs in Melbourne that you worry about your four walls. You worry that you're only as good as your last service,” says Enrico.
They have a shared tendency to refer to their ventures as “four walls” rather than as cafes or restaurants or wine bars. Walls seem to be a convenient way to outline potentials, to define a space by its form rather than its varying functions. Back then the concept of a bustling hybrid space that stayed up all hours, from breakfast and lunch to dinner and last drinks (with coffee in between) had barely been imagined in Sydney.
“We put a lot of noses out of place. It was like, ‘Who are these cracks from Melbourne serving food at 4pm in the afternoon and 11pm at night, at the same quality you get at a fine diner?’” says Enrico.
“Now everyone loves having a late lunch. Before it was never heard of. Still, people to this day ask, 'Are you guys still open past three o'clock?'” adds Ambrosino.
“People are not confined to eating between 12 and two, and six and eight o'clock. It's an international city with lots of tourists and people want to come and dine,” says Johnny. “They don't want to walk in in mid-December or the day after Christmas and find that your restaurant is closed… You are an institution; you've got to be open. You've got to be there for the people.”
And so these four walls have maintained an insomniac’s schedule. So too have its owners, at least for a while. “The first six months was a blur. We were working 20 hours a day. It was like breakfast rolled into lunch; lunch rolled into dinner; dinner rolled into going to bed; going to bed rolled into waking up…it was just crazy,” recalls Enrico.
As they trace the history and philosophies around their approach dining, the team’s sense of camaraderie is clear. It’s one forged rather than brokered. The lives they may have had aren’t lamented in the slightest. These four walls have grounded them, acted as a lightning rod for ideas about food and community.
“It’s been a good change of lifestyle,” Ambrosio says. “This is more soulful and gratifying and grounding and earthy, and has given me a lot of things that I didn't have before…”
“I would have been some balding, boofhead, fat idiot sitting in an office, eating unhealthy food and going to lunch between 12 and two, only eating dinner between six and nine at night, so...” he pauses, lingering over the image.