Tony Nicolini admits to having his soul split in two; he recognises the deep roots of his Italian family that continue to lie beneath his feet, while embracing his journey in Australia that began at a very young age.
His father Vitaliano was born in Chieti, in the central region of Abruzzo, and arrived in Melbourne in 1956, along with his uncle Eugenio, one of the most famous tailors in the city.
From the moment he set foot on Australian soil, Vitaliano vowed to never forget his homeland.
After gaining experience at renowned Italian restaurants in Melbourne, from Florentino, to Society and Pellegrini’s, Vitaliano moved to Queensland in search of new job opportunities.
In 1969, he took a huge risk and established the first Italian pizzeria on the Gold Coast.
“He opened his first pizzeria the year I came into the world; it’s amazing how 50 years have already passed since that day,” Nicolini says.
“Our childhood was a bit restless; our parents were always working in the pizzeria.
“But now I understand how exceptional their commitment was.
“My father’s talent is an inspiration for all of us.
“He managed to successfully sell a new product on a continent that was still developing.”
Vitaliano Nicolini working in his pizzeria on the Gold Coast
Inspired by his father, Nicolini is now an expert in Italian food and wine, and has been in the hospitality industry for over 20 years.
Growing up among flour and tomato sauce, he savoured typical Italian cuisine from a young age, appreciating every aspect.
His knowledge of Italian food was further strengthened in Abruzzo, where his family attempted to resettle on several occasions.
Nostalgia continually knocked on Vitaliano’s door throughout his life.
“My father always thought he could return to Italy,” Nicolini says.
“We tried it four times – when I was five, 10, 15 and 20 years old; each time we stayed for around two years.
“Unfortunately, for an Italian emigrant, it’s always very difficult to return to childhood places, especially after enjoying a simpler and more informal lifestyle.
“At the age of 20, I left Italy and my family, and returned to Melbourne to live with my aunt.
“I’d already started university and I wanted to realise my potential in Australia.
“After a few years, my father made a final decision to return to Melbourne for good.”
Having gained practical experience in his father’s pizzeria, Nicolini also completed a degree in marketing and tourism at Victoria University.
In 1997, he opened his first pizzeria, Pizza Espresso, in Templestowe.
The restaurant reflected the Italian traditions that Nicolini inherited from his father, along with his remarkable creative vein and his courage and freedom to experiment.
Just two years later, The Age Epicure crowned Nicolini the “King of Pizza”.
With his name on the Melbourne food scene’s map, Nicolini was unstoppable.
“At that time, the pizza we know today didn’t exist,” he says.
“It was unthinkable to add buffalo mozzarella, for example.
“Thanks to my father’s advice and skills, I started reflecting on the product; I wanted to offer Italian pizza here in Melbourne.
“Slowly, customers started lining up to eat in our pizzeria, but the idea was to go back to the heart of the Italian community: Carlton.”
In 2004, Nicolini opened Carlton Espresso in Melbourne’s “Little Italy”, along the street that still holds the dreams and hopes of millions of migrants to this day.
Nicolini was on a mission to celebrate gastronomy and create a meeting point that intertwined the two universes to which he felt he belonged.
In 2007, the restaurant adopted the name of DOC Espresso; that same year, Nicolini also opened DOC Pizza.
A few years later, DOC Delicatessen came to life.
In 2011 and 2013, Nicolini opened DOC Mornington and DOC Albert Park respectively.
By then, the corporate group had had a huge impact on the progress of Melbourne’s hospitality sector, and boasted over 150 Italian employees.
“It was a tight-knit and enthusiastic group that dreamed of expanding and gave so much to the business,” Nicolini emphasises.
The venues gave many migrants the opportunity to stay in Australia on a Sponsor Visa.
In 2017, despite his success, the entrepreneur made a sudden decision to sell all his shares.
“It was the right time for me,” he says.
“I felt great responsibility in the face of such an extensive corporate plan that had evolved so quickly.
“I wanted to reap the fruits of the sacrifices I’d made over the years, and to be more present for my two young daughters as they were growing up.
“It was a bit like losing a big puzzle piece in my life, but it was my choice, the right choice, and I don’t regret it.”
After a couple of years of rest and reflection, while the hospitality industry continued to evolve, Nicolini embarked on a new project in 2018: Italian Artisans in Albert Park.
“I want to honour the work of artisans and their stories,” Nicolini says.
Now more than ever, he feels the desire to promote the commitment of small, family-run businesses – the makers, growers and creators.
“This place is the fusion of all my professional endeavours,” Nicolini says.
“I want to devote myself to craftsmanship, celebrating contemporary pizza but using ancient and organic grains and respecting the fermentation of the dough, reflecting the history that precedes us.
“This year, we celebrate 50 years of Pizza Nicolini and I thought of the NICO50 brand in honour of my father, who passed away in 2013, as well as my experience and the enthusiasm of the third generation, my daughters Simona and Mara.
Three generations of the Nicolini family: Tony Nicolini’s daughters, Mara and Simona, Tony, and his father Vitaliano. The photo was taken in 2006 at Carlton Espresso
“In September, I’ll open an espresso bar in Albert Park, where people can enjoy good Italian coffee, as well as focaccia and biscuits made by my father-in-law, Giuseppe Cavallaro.
“His family was among the first to make Sicilian cannoli here in Melbourne.
“There will also be a small ‘square’ as a meeting point for the community.”
Nicolini’s biggest dream is to eventually return to Carlton, where he currently lives with his wife Marcella and their daughters.
Imagine a sustainable, eco-friendly space, which involves the younger generations and gives life to recreational activities where you can tell stories and immerse yourself in the flavours of Italian cuisine.
“I remember an evening with my father in Carlton in 2012: after dinner, we’d decided to walk to my pizzeria,” Nicolini recalls.
“We stopped and stared at the line of customers who were waiting for a table.
“My father was touched; he was very proud of me.
“It was in that moment that I thought I’d finally made it, and I hope I can make that big dream come true again.
“I’d like to participate in a new evolution of Italian culture here in Melbourne.”