Calling the Florentino a restaurant is like saying the MCG is a sporting oval. It's more than that. It's an institution and lays legitimate claim to that much-bandied-about title. For starters, it's Australia's oldest restaurant, celebrating its 85th birthday this year, but there's more to this grand Bourke Street Italian than old age. Surrounded by the edifices of state, art, business and religion, the Florentino seems as integral to the fabric of Melbourne as any of them.
Looking at the Florentino today, two wide, double-storied shopfronts on Bourke Hill, the upstairs restaurant buffed and shiny from a recent renovation, the Grill and Cellar Bar underneath crowded and buzzing, the institution label doesn't seem like much of a stretch. But when Rinaldo Massoni, a former surgical instrument maker from Lucca who arrived in Melbourne in 1911, bought the French Café Denat in 1928 (the upstairs Wynn Room today), changed its name to Café Florentino and its accent to Italian, it was a humbler affair.
The dining scene in Melbourne then skewed towards France, but a growing number of Italian restaurateurs like Massoni had opened businesses such as Café Latin, Mario's and Society, drawing politicians, society figures, artists and international visitors.
In the '30s a fire in the building gave Massoni the chance not only to renovate the one-roomed Café Florentino, but also to extend it and take advantage of the growing desire for sophisticated dining. And so the fabled Mural Room, still one of the grandest dining rooms in the country with its enormous Italian-inspired art, chandeliers and timber panelling, came into being.
Massoni died in 1941 and his son Leon took over the restaurant in 1946, going into partnership with George Tsindos, one of the restaurant's waiters, in 1950. It was during this partnership that the Florentino moved into its present form with the opening of the dark-hued, bohemian Cellar Bar in the mid-1950s and the sharp Robyn Boyd-designed Bistro Grill in the late '50s. The formula - a variety of formats, atmospheres and price ranges all under one name - was exciting, inspired and groundbreaking for Melbourne. And so began the legend.
The owners who came next, Branco Tocigl, Floyd and Lorraine Podgornik, and the Grossi family have adhered to an unspoken policy of subtle, gradual change over the past four decades. As current co-owner Liz Grossi-Rodriguez says, owning the Florentino "comes with responsibility towards the restaurant - I think when you're part of the Florentino it doesn't just belong to you, it belongs to the whole of Melbourne".
This sense of ownership is common to its long-term regulars. Take Lady Susan Renouf, who first started frequenting the Florentino when she was about 18 and working at the Herald Sun newspaper in the late '50s.
Her father, politician Sir John Rossiter, "worked up the road" and would take her there for lunch once a month.
"He was very traditional," she says. "There would always be a bunch of violets for me at the table and he would order either spaghetti marinara or veal Cordon Bleu, and he usually started off with a dry Martini. We always had the same table, 'our' table, in the inside room."
The "inside room" was what those in the know called the Mural Room, the room to the left at the top of the stairs. To be seated to the right, "outside" in the Wynn Room, was social death and so the approach to the upstairs restaurant, already made treacherous by a dizzyingly steep staircase (since replaced by a much less challenging version), was made more nerve-racking as you awaited the verdict from long-time maître d' Tony Pizzi as to where he'd seat you.
"As you walked up the stairs you would make eye contact with Tony Pizzi, who would be standing at the top," recalls Lady Renouf. "You'd look to the left as you went up, and then his hand would gesture to the left, so you knew you were going to be seated in the inner sanctum, which is where you wanted to be."
According to food critic and writer Rita Erlich, this sense of a strict hierarchy at the Florentino was in full swing up until the late '90s when the Grossi family took over the restaurant and loosened things up a bit. "I can't begin to explain how establishment it once was," says Erlich. "It was an establishment clubhouse with good service - if they knew you."
Lorraine Podgornik became owner of the restaurant in 1990 in both tragic and scandalous circumstances.
Her husband Floyd, a racehorse owner and property developer, had bought the Florentino in 1989 with plans to overhaul the place, including combining the downstairs Grill and Cellar Bar into one big room. The National Trust intervened, however, and the extensive renovation was swapped for an expensive restoration which, writes Erlich in her book Melbourne by Menu, "gleamed, shone and sparkled" once the builders had left.
When the Podgorniks took over "we watched very closely", says businessman and former Lord Mayor of Melbourne Ron Walker. Walker's relationship with the Florentino is typical among a certain breed of Melburnian. "I started going there at age 16 with my parents," he says. "And when I got a car I started to go there with my school friends. We all had our licences and were driving MGs and Triumphs, and it became a regular Friday lunch that you couldn't miss. We couldn't afford to go upstairs in those early days, so we were downstairs in the Cellar Bar, but when I became more mature and had some money I started eating upstairs. When I was a councillor and Lord Mayor we'd hold dinner parties up there… It's always been a political hangout and attracts Melbourne's top people."
People like music promoter-mogul Michael Gudinski, a long-time fan. "I've brought lots of artists here and [the Florentino has] never let me down," says Gudinski. "Billy Joel one time took the whole upstairs for Thanksgiving for all his crew. I've brought Sting here, My Chemical Romance, Amanda Palmer, Green Day, Dave Grohl."
Just months after reopening, Floyd Podgornik committed suicide and Lorraine suffered a very public tussle with his mistress, Carolyn Palliardi, for ownership of the restaurant. She won the court battle and stepped in to take charge. "It was difficult walking into such a well-known establishment, particularly because so many people feel they own a part of it," she says. "I felt at the beginning there were a lot of people thinking I shouldn't be there."
Still, she persevered and proved herself to be a canny operator, recruiting veteran caterer Peter Rowland and restaurant consultant Virginia Hellier for counsel while she was trying to find her feet. "We took her into the kitchen to explain how it worked and to give her the confidence to understand what she had," said Hellier.
"We helped write the menus and gave the restaurant a classic Italian focus."
It was around this time, the mid-1990s, when the food upstairs at Florentino began attracting as much of a crowd as the crowd itself. In the '80s the food had become a mishmash of "international cuisine" - seafood cocktails and crêpes Florentine. Podgornik employed chef Mark Haynes, from Armadale's Petit Choux, who started turning out dishes such as grilled scampi with lemon butter, linguine pescatore and calf's liver and onions. "What had been a bit ho-hum was suddenly impressive," according to Erlich, and for the first time the restaurant started picking up awards.
As Podgornik settled in and began to understand the culture of the Florentino, she also started to understand the politics of inclusion. When she decided to change the carpet in the restaurant, she asked three of her most high-profile establishment customers to help with the decision (blue, with a gold fleur-de-lis) because "I knew if it was chosen by them, it would have to be the right one".
She was also careful to maintain the status quo, which included nurturing the famous Spring Racing Carnival lunches - particularly the establishment-magnet Melbourne Cup Eve lunch started by British racing identity Robert Sangster in the late '70s. (It was at one of these lunches during a heatwave in the late 1980s that Sangster and several others decided to flout the strict jacket and tie rule that was enforced in the Mural Room by removing their jackets. They were then tossed out, much to the delight of gossip columnists across the city.)
"The lunches during the Racing Carnival were just crazy," says Podgornik. "There would be Mr [Richard] Pratt and Mr Sangster, Susan Renouf, Lady [Sonia] McMahon and a very élite group of racehorse owners from Sydney, Ireland and England, as well as Melbourne. Every year Mr Pratt and John Elliot would get up and do a singsong together."
These once unofficial lunches have become a fixture on the Spring Racing Carnival calendar, with part of the Melbourne Cup's official tour being to stop in at Grossi Florentino at lunchtime on Cup Eve. Kate Waterhouse, of the Waterhouse racing clan, says some of her fondest memories are of "going to the Flo" around Melbourne Cup time. "The lunches are amazing," she says. "The whole racing crowd is there and it has an amazing vibe."
In fact, "the Cup Eve lunch is booked out permanently", says Grossi-Rodriguez. "You have to know someone on the table to be able to come. It's become such a huge event, with live singers and dancing, and everybody having a good time."
The Grossi family bought the restaurant from Podgornik in 1999 and there was a real effort to, as Melissa Grossi puts it, "bring the Italian back", and take an even stronger Italian stance. Frank Camorra, MoVida owner-chef, worked for Guy Grossi at South Yarra's Caffe Grossi and Pietro when they bought the Florentino and came with him during the lightning turnaround from handover to opening (just two days, according to Liz). "It wasn't an easy restaurant to work," Camorra says. "Like most old restaurants, it was a rabbit warren back of house, with tiny kitchens and storage all over the place. But even with those limitations I think there was a massive improvement with the food in all three venues when Guy took over."
Brigitte Hafner, owner of Gertrude Street Enoteca, also spent time in the kitchens at Grossi Florentino. "I was quite besotted when I first walked into that kitchen," she recalls. "Guy was very animated. There was a lot of singing and Italian carry-on, a lot of drama - in a good way. The food was incredible and they did very adventurous things.
I remember there were live eels one day and there was pandemonium as everybody was trying to deal with them when they were still wiggling around."
Though the Grossi family had immense respect for the Florentino, they did ruffle some feathers when they first took over, particularly with the decisions to abandon the jacket rule and to allow women to work the floor in the upstairs restaurant, which had never been permitted before. It was, according to Grossi-Rodriguez , "very controversial and there were a lot of people who didn't like me much at the time".
But dealing with (and surviving) those initial reactions made it easier for the family this year when they decided, in honour of the restaurant's 85th birthday, to close the upstairs restaurant for nearly three months to renovate it and to herald a change in the direction of the food. "We wanted to make the food upstairs more contemporary," says Guy Grossi. "The philosophy is that every dish has a link with Italian cooking. It can be as modern as we like and use non-traditional ingredients, but it's not just concoction for concoction's sake."
General manager Jeanette Barker says they took steps to ensure regulars knew what was going on because "people feel they're really part of the Florentino and you have to let them know ahead of time if you're going to change things".
But while Grossi Florentino regulars might regard change with baleful suspicion, moving with the times has helped keep the restaurant in the game for almost nine decades. As restaurant manager Joe Durrant says, "It needs to change; otherwise it becomes like an antique, somewhere people go to worship rather than to eat."
But at the Florentino, it can very well be a case of worshipping while you eat.