Five Minutes with a Legend: Maurice Terzini

Published on 16 June 2022

Photo: Maurice Terzini

With more than three decades in the trade, Maurice Terzini has helmed over 20 hospitality businesses across Sydney and Melbourne. Some have shone fast and bright, others – like Icebergs – have been going strong for 20 years. 

He is known for his exacting standards and for creating restaurants that are as much fun as they are great places to eat and drink. Ahead of his return to Melbourne with the launch of Cucina Povera Vino Vero (alongside Kew pasta king Joseph Vargetto), we caught up with Terzini to chat about the joy of hospitality, his three favourite venues and the mentor who changed his life.

Maurice Terzini was inducted as an MFWF Industry Legend in 2015.

As a bright-eyed 23 year-old, Terzini opened Caffé e Cucina in 1988. No till, no investment, just an idea and youthful confidence. Not long after, Terzini partnered up with the legendary Donlevy Fitzpatrick to open Melbourne Wine Room and Il Bàcaro, before Sydney beckoned with Otto on the Woolloomooloo Wharf, and then, of course, Icebergs.

The proudest moment in my career has been... It’s very hard to put just one down, but if I had to choose, opening Icebergs tops the lot of them. Certainly, Melbourne Wine Room was one of the most influential moments of my life, especially alongside Donlevy Fitzpatrick – God rest his soul. Caffé e Cucina was a milestone and certainly a moment that shaped my career, but going in and setting up shop at Icebergs, in such a brilliant position and delivering an exceptional experience that rings true 20 years on, that would be my proudest moment.

The mistake that taught me the most was not listening to my gut about certain situations and partners. There are times I’ve seen the potential for disaster and just ignored it because it’s easier to not have to deal with it. It always comes back to bite you. It’s natural to doubt yourself, but I think the more you grow in business, the less you doubt. In these last five years, I’ve noticed that shift for me. That’s not to say I don’t question things, but past mistakes have taught me well, and I no longer ignore my gut or my own ability to recognise ideas that work and those that don’t. It’s taken time, but now I always make sure to check in with myself and respect my decisions (even when they need to be reversed). 

My first job in hospitality was... My dad was a bit of a jack of all trades, and one of those trades was owning a café in Italy. Growing up, I worked in the business. When I returned to Australia as at 16 I got a job in a supermarket, and I really enjoyed the customer service aspect of it. I then found myself entering real hospitality at 18 when I got a job The Black Cat and then Marios in Fitzroy. I was stinting as a chef and I thought, “sh*t, I’m going to be a line cook forever”, until I filled a shift working on the floor one night and I knew that was me.

The reason I got into this industry (and stayed) was when I started on the floor it came very naturally and I was good at it right off the bat. Those formative years at Marios are what sold me. The service, and the pride that was taken in providing service and experience to our guests – I loved every aspect of it. On the other side, the systems behind creating a vibe of a venue gave me so much inspiration and motivation to go further in the industry. Having the confidence to trust myself to know what works and what people want was a huge learning curve for me, but it’s also one of my great skills that has seen me across so many venues. We were chilling reds in ’96, serving 11 per cent Beaujolais before it was a trend, just because it felt right and it tasted right, and we were forging these relationships with exceptional producers that we wanted to work with and I still continue to work with. The relationships you forge in this industry make it pretty hard to ever want to walk away.

My mentor was Donlevy Fitzpatrick had a major influence on my life both personally and professionally. I’m sure I’m one of many to say that. Like Donlevy, I’m guided by my palate. Sometimes (while working at The Melbourne Wine Room), we’d be chatting about wines and he’d say “I’m not interested in how technical the wine is. I’m more interested in the end product. Is it good or is it bad?” It’s a question I apply to food and wine, but I also apply it to everything I do. Donlevy was the master of quality over quantity, and at Cucina Povera we have eight wines on the list and that’s it. It’s a limited menu across the board, and Donlevy’s influence is everywhere.

The most exciting development in the Victorian hospitality industry in the last five years is there are more and more Italian restaurants these days, which is great, but I started to see a bit of a monotonous voice across a lot of them - everyone has a burrata on their menu. I’m a bit of a socialist at heart, and so I love bringing simple quality to people in understated ways, and I’ve loved that recent return to simplicity. It’s what Cucina Povera is all about, and as a result this venue is one of the most exciting journeys that I’ve been a part of for a long time. I like this return to simplicity. It eliminates that excess that we have become accustomed to. Joe Vargetto always says "poor in ingredients, rich in flavour". I love that, and it’s not that there’s not room for more refined and technical cooking, but this is what we’re craving, and what excites me most. It’s culture over systems.

My favourite thing to drink in Victoria right now is anything made by Joshua Cooper. Day in and day out, Josh is the best producer in this country right now. 

My favourite hospitality venue to visit in Victoria is... I have three. And they’re all classics and they’re all important to me because they all have cultural significance and they all have taught me something.

Flower Drum – I’d never really eaten Chinese before I went to the Flower Drum. I celebrate all special occasions there. It’s impeccable.

France-Soir
– One of the great restaurants of the world. Even 35 years in it’s full every night, it’s just a bloody good bistro.

Di Stasio
: Because… Di Stasio. 

Stay tuned for Cucina Povera Vino Vero opening details.  

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