The Italian job

Guiseppe Pagliaricci
Guiseppe Pagliaricci at work in the kitchen. Photography: Frances Anrijich

For 34 years, Perugino restaurant has been at the forefront of Italian dining in Perth—and Guiseppe Pagliaricci has been at the helm the entire time. By Kerryn Ramsey

Born in the small town of Collazzone, a 20-minute drive from Italy’s Perugia, Guiseppe Pagliaricci found his passion for cooking at a young age. In his teens, he worked at local family-run restaurants, followed by work in Venice, Umbria and Assisi. Encouraged by the owners of a restaurant who had invested money in Australia, Pagliaricci decided to try his luck Down Under. In 1978, at the age of 28, he arrived in Perth. 

What did you think of Perth when you arrived?

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed and ready to return to Italy. Initially, I was working at La Tenda nightclub, which was a bit of a hotspot in Perth. I did everything but cook and the owner wasn’t paying me or the bills! One day I was walking past La Tavernetta and the owner Ben Didio was sitting outside. He asked if I was Italian and new to Australia. When I told him I was, he offered me a job and I walked into his restaurant to start cooking. The restaurant closed a few months later but he’s still my very good friend.

What was dining like in Perth in the ’80s?

Guiseppe Pagliaricci
Prepping for service in the dining room

From 1982 to ’93, the changes in Perth, and Australia, were enormous. For one thing, the improvement in the quality of ingredients was huge. Australia was adopting more international cuisines, and Italian food became very popular. 

Why did you decide to start your own restaurant?

I was working part-time as a porter and part-time in a restaurant called La Capannina of which I had a 25 per cent stake. My partner at the time didn’t care about anything but the money. One night I told him I would be leaving at the end of the year. Five minutes before midnight in 1985, I left and never came back.

“I’ll do anything for my staff but when it’s time for work, we have to be serious. We have to try our best to be perfect. It’s as simple as that.”

Guiseppe Pagliaricci, Perugino

I started looking around for a place of my own and the restaurant I really liked was ugly and pretty disgusting. After discussing it with my wife, we ended up buying it. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. We called our new restaurant Perugino, cleaned it up and made it beautiful. Then in 1994, we did another complete renovation.

Guiseppe Pagliaricci
Mixed cheese platter with homemade fig jam. 

Was Perugino successful straight away?

No. The night before we opened, I was sealing the terracotta tiles on the dining room floor at 3am then I started doing the cooking. On our first night, we had about 25 people come in. The next day we had 13 guests for lunch and zero that night. We cleaned up and went home, completely buggered. We continued bumping along until, one Mother’s Day, a food critic from The Sunday Times gave us a fantastic review. For the next six years, I needed to employ one person just to answer the phone.

How many staff does Perugino have?

We have 13 staff including myself and my son. We can seat between 75 and 110 people.

Do you have any trouble retaining staff?

No, but I carefully choose the people I employ. I have two staff with me in the kitchen; one has been here for three years and one for eight. I’ll do anything for my staff but when it’s time for work, we have to be serious. We have to try our best to be perfect. It’s really as simple as that.

What makes a great Italian restaurant?

The food on the plate must be very, very tasty. It’s also important to have consistency so every time a guest walks in, they know they’re going to get a good meal. 

“You must have commitment. I come to work at 8am and go home at 1 o’clock in the morning. Every day is the same because what I do is the most important thing in
my life.”

Guiseppe Pagliaricci, Perugino

I am fanatical about purchasing fresh, quality produce. My seafood is fresh daily and of the best quality.

Guiseppe Pagliaricci

It’s also important to go that extra mile. For example, I source high-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano for the restaurant then I age it. Perugino uses 10-year-old cheese that’s impossible to find elsewhere.

You recently won Lifetime Achiever at the WA Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned over your career?

You need to be consistent in everything you do. And you must have commitment. I come to work at 8am and go home at one o’clock in the morning. Every day is the same because what I do is the most important thing in my life.

Giuseppe Pagliaricci
The team, left to right: chef Roberto Federici, chef Alessio Palermi, Giuseppe Pagliaricci, Serxho Shiroka, Francesco Pagliaricci

If I have one bit of advice for anyone who wants to start their own restaurant, it is this: Be very careful. Make sure your numbers are right because the expenses are extremely high and the margins are thin. Be prepared for long hours and expect to be humble. Buy the best produce you can afford and don’t cut any corners.

What’s the future hold for Perugino?

I want to continue on and keep
doing what we’re doing. My son Francesco works the front of house and he’s exceptional—a real people person. Maybe one day he will take over. If I can find the right people to work in the back, he will have no problem running the place.