The seeds of Sagra, an impressive new endeavour opening on Malvern’s Glenferrie Road that ambitiously combines Italian restaurant, bar, deli and gallery space, were sown long ago, when owner Ross Chessari was a babe in arms.
His Italian immigrant parents ran traditional grocery stores in Brunswick and Fitzroy North, the kind where you ordered at a counter, rather than perusing aisles, and benefitted from their vast advice. Growing up, Chessari worked in the shops and grew to love his parents’ passionate focus on good food and a creating a welcome community hub.
‘We were part of the fabric of local society,’ he says. ‘We’d talk about what our clientele were going to cook tonight or the day after, and figure out what they needed. The new immigrants were bringing their own methods and their own stories. Someone from northern Italy would make their spaghetti puttanesca or risotto in a particular way and someone from the south would do it entirely differently.’
In Italy, sagra festivals celebrate local gastronomic specialities and this passion forms the basis of Sagra in Malvern, where a constantly evolving, seasonal menu will showcase the best Italian fare with the freshest ingredients alongside favourite pasta dishes. ‘We’ll specialise in a particular sagra every two or three weeks,’ Chessari says. ‘You might have a favourite dish, but it will disappear and be back next year. But hopefully we’ll introduce you to a whole bunch of other traditions you’ll love.’
The vast, light-filled hall, with its glass brick ceiling high above, is abuzz with colour and striking architecture, fusing contemporary art and classic design. The walls of the 120-seater ground-floor restaurant are daubed with giant murals referencing Chessari’s family history and the evolution of Sagra, but the space is
dominated by its theatre kitchen, itself overhung by a vast, industrial extractor fan making its own case to be considered an artwork. The kitchen is ringed by a mosaic-tiled and marble-topped bar, and a big silver Josper grill sits at its heart – it will dish up the likes of tomahawk steaks and succulent chicken wings.
‘Food goes into the Josper and, like the like the loaves and fishes, miracles come out,’ Chessari says. ‘Because of the charcoal heat, the chicken wings’ skin lightens up and all the fat melts so when you put it in your mouth, you just get this beautiful wash of flavours across your palate. I’m already dribbling.’
Family photos have been blown up to giant size, decorating the walls of the deli towards the rear of Sagra, with towering wooden shelving that looks like fruit crates on market day. The idea is that people will be able to pull up a table at one of the blue leather banquettes or perch at the high-backed brown leather stools attending the marble bar, have a chat with the chef and try something new. They can then get inspired to replicate the dish at home, plundering the well-stocked deli shelves that double as Sagra’s pantry.
‘That’s part of the idea of our deli, having very knowledgeable staff with an understanding of techniques,’ Chessari says. ‘I always said to my parents we should have extended from the grocery into the restaurant. We can say to anybody that’s interested which flour is right for your pasta or what prosciutto to use in your carbonara. You don’t have to go through a dozen of anything to figure out what’s best.’
There are plans afoot for cooking classes at some point after the big launch, mooted for early Feb, but for the meantime it’s great to perch at the bar and watch the Sagra team at work. Chessari loves to do this wherever he travels in the world.
‘I was sitting at a bench like in Las Ramblas market in Barcelona recently, talking to the chef about the notion of razor clams, which looked a bit weird,’ he says. ‘A Japanese lady next to me slid her own dish along the bar and told me “just try it.” It was delicious, so I ordered my own and had a chat with my new friend.’
Sagra’s restaurant will take bookings, or you can take the lift to the walk-in only top-floor bar, where that glass brick ceiling becomes a runway floor. The barn-like ceiling is studded with twin strips of skylights and glass walls ring the cool bar space, sliding back on sunny days so patrons can spill out onto the balcony with city views. They’ll serve Italian-inspired sliders up here as well as simple nibbles including those tasty chicken wings. A towering glass dumb waiter connects to the theatre kitchen below and a commercial prep kitchen in the basement.
The contemporary gallery and function space sits on a mezzanine level between the pair, with bold, eclectic works from artist like Angela Cavalieri and Stephen McCarthy adorning the walls and sculptural pieces from Geoffrey Bartlett and Emma Davies sitting side-by-side with collectable Race furniture.
Sagra opens 2nd February 2015
256-258 Glenferrie Road, Malvern
Image Credits: Michelle Jarni