This autumn, Sicilian chef Rosa Mitchell opened her new restaurant, Rosa’s Canteen, in the heart of Melbourne’s legal district. We caught up with her just before she opened the doors. 

Essentials: Where were you born?

Rosa: I was born Rosa Pagano in the province of Catania in Sicily. Although I was very young, only seven years old, when my family moved to Australia, I still have distinct memories of the markets. There were young men carrying trays of the ripest, reddest and sweetest watermelon. Then there were these lovely doughnuts. Chewy, not soft. When I went back to Sicily recently I attempted to find them again but the ones I tried were no good – too soft. An old man then told me to buy them from a certain bakery. I bought one just before I boarded the train on the way to the way to the airport. It was amazing. But, sadly, I was leaving. I can’t wait to go back and find more.

Essentials: When did you become a chef?

Rosa: I only started cooking professionally 12 years ago. I was involved in the founding of Slow Food in Melbourne many years ago with great friends James Broadway and Brigitte Hafner. They were just about to open their now famed Gertrude Street Enoteca in Fitzroy. I asked Brigitte if I could cook for her. I was a hairdresser at the time. She said, ‘Are you sure?’ I jumped in and learned so much from her.

Essentials: What is your favourite Italian cuisine?

Rosa: Naturally I love Sicilian food. But I am particularly fond of the food of Rome. There have always been a lot of Jews in Rome and they left their mark on the cooking with such dishes as lamb and artichokes. My Aunt Santa (she passed away early this autumn at 93 years of age) lived in Rome and she made meat ragu and the best cannoli with crema: custard scantly flavoured with lemon rind that she stirred through on the end of a fork. She had a tiny charcoal stove in the kitchen over the flames of which she grilled simple fish and pork chops seasoned with lemon, salt, olive oil and oregano. But in truth I love all Italian food, I have friends from all over Italy who show me different ways of cooking. That’s what we are celebrating at Rosa’s Canteen.

Essentials: What’s your favourite dish at present?

Rosa: I love the lamb and pea ragu. It’s made with slow-cooked lamb neck and shoulder, some fried onion, carrot and celery, a little tomato; and finished with fresh peas and spooned over casarecce pasta enriched with grated pecorino and served with a glass of my husband’s nebbiolo. It’s delicious.

Open daily, noon-10.30pm
500 Bourke St, Melbourne (enter via Thomson St) 
Tel 03 9602 5491

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