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A look behind the scenes at Melbourne’s pasta royalty

Words and Photography by: Miss SL

From humble beginnings serving hand-made pasta at the family’s Collingwood restaurant, to providing for Melbourne’s most prominent and much-hyped restaurants, the Tonin family have steadily created a reputation worth raving about. Listing off customers such as Guy Grossi (Grossi Florentino, Ombra, Merchant), George Calombaris (The Press Club, Gazi, Hellenic Republic), Shane Delia (Maha, St Katherine’s) and Matt Wilkinson (Pope Joan) it makes you wonder – why the heck have we never heard of these guys before? It was a cold, grey afternoon in Melbourne when I stepped into the small, unassuming space that is Pasta Classica in Collingwood to find out.

Immediately welcomed by a counter of freshly made tortellini, bonbons and fettuccine, the small space at Pasta Classica can only be described as cozy. Daniel Tonin – Sales Manager, Head of Product and Design and son of owners Robert and Anna Maria Tonin – is sitting towards the back of the venue playing with his daughter. Over the course of the next hour and half, I’m consumed by the passion and excitement that drive the Tonin men to push the boundaries of the pasta world to create flavours such as beetroot and fetta tortellini, porcini mushroom, black truffle and buffalo ricotta bonbons and squid ink gnocchi stuffed with Queensland rock lobster, fresh crab and Japanese scallops.

Starting from humble beginnings as first generation migrants from Italy, Robert  worked in his family’s Italian restaurant as the maitre d’, welcoming guests, taking orders and forming life-long bonds with the patrons. Married young to Anna Maria, the pair found themselves struggling to support themselves with the little income they could make. So they decided to do what they know best, and take a leap of faith to open up their own business – Pasta Classica – on the then deserted location of 352 Smith Street, Collingwood, where they still stand today.

“It was very hard back then. When we first opened, we would work from 7am to 11pm and only make as little as $60 a week,” mused Robert as he thought back to those times.  “At age nine or ten we had Daniel working with us during the school holidays. There was no rest for us. Anna Maria was beginning to think we’d made a mistake, but we knew we had something good here.”

And good it is. With a shop-front window full of pasta that looks more like a lolly-shop display, the message of Pasta Classica is clear: we’re not your average pasta store. Holding true to their values, Robert continued to work on developing new gourmet flavours – extracting colours out of vegetables, to create pasta that not only tasted good, but looked good too.

The success of Pasta Classica skyrocketed after Robert and Daniel decided to host a stand at a pasta convention in the Melbourne Exhibition building back in 2005. Attracting a swarm of vendors, chefs and caterers, the family-based business began to gain steady interest from various catering companies and chefs.

It was around this time that Daniel took some time off from the business, travelling in Europe and his country of origin, Italy. By chance, Daniel befriended a traveler who happened to manufacture industrial machines for making pasta. Following this new-found friend to Como, Italy, Daniel spent 3 weeks helping this global company to adjust the design of their machines to create ravioloni (giant tortellini).  Turning his hand to pasta, in the birthplace of this dish, was a revelation – Daniel realised that his future was with the family business back in Melbourne.

Now the head artisan at Pasta Classica, Daniel acts as the Sales Manager and Head of Product Development and Design. Bringing a breath of fresh air to the pasta business, his experiments with flavours are unique and delicious. Squid ink pasta, chili and lime gnocchi and pea, mint, marscapone ravioli are just some of the flavours developed. So how does the founder of this family business, Robert, feel about mixing contemporary flavours with classic ones?
“I prefer traditional, but Daniel creates some very exciting flavours. What is the difference between an artist and an artisan? An artist will paint what you request, but an artisan invents. People look at artisans and think ‘that man’s crazy’  but they are still talking about his work long after he’s gone. Daniel is an artisan. He is a genius.”

Pasta Classica sells their fresh, hand-made pasta to the general public at their Collingwood store.

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