MILDURA is about to experience a culinary sensation with the opening this week of restaurant 400 Gradi whose famous Italian cuisine food has won international acclaim.

Located in the former homes of the Museum of Innocence, the Australian Dried Fruits Association and decades before that, the Stuart and Harrison Holden dealership, Mildura’s newest dining sensation promises to add a new dimension to the local dining scene with its 300 seat capacity and array of dining options.

400 Gradi Mildura has opened alongside Zero Gradi Gelateria and Dessert Bar and Gradi’s Italian delicatessen concept, Gradi Mercato on the Deakin Avenue site.

To launch the new venue, 400 Gradi founder and internationally renowned chef and restaurateur Johnny Di Francesco has partnered with co-owner and Mildura local Michael Sarrou, who previously ran Fasta Pasta in Mildura for 17 years.

The Weekly sat down with Mr Di Francesco where he was asked what inspired him to come to Mildura.

“Firstly, I was approached by some locals including Michael and Christine Sarrou and we just connected and hit-it-off from the time we met,” Mr Di Francesco said.

“I saw that they had a passion for food and running restaurants, with Michael having a lot of experience in the restaurant game.

“We thought Mildura is a great market – it is known for great food and having people like Stefano here – and so I said I thought it would be a great addition to the culinary offerings in Mildura.”

When you enter 400 Gradi it has the feeling of a smart, Melbourne brasserie.

It oozes elegance and class with a casual, relaxed atmosphere.

“We have also opened a restaurant in Mornington and we enjoy bringing something to a place where the locals will feel comfortable coming to dine,” Mr Di Francesco said.

“It is a family friendly restaurant and it’s not too over-the-top and you have a great feeling when you come here, because we do try create an ambience of casual elegance and a welcoming feel.

“Much of the cuisine is Italian and influenced from Southern Italy and Campania region.

“Seafood inspired, pastas and we are famous for our napoletana pizzas – that’s what we are known for across Australia and indeed around the world, where we have won the Championship Awards, giving us that international recognition.”

400 Gradi was established in 2008, with their flagship site in the heart of Brunswick, and like most Italian families, they have grown and now have seven restaurants in Australia, including Mildura.

All of the restaurants are staffed with passionate teams committed to offering hear-felt cuisine in a warm atmosphere.

Mr Di Francesco got his first job making pizza at the age of 12, motivated by wanting to buy a pair of Nikes that his family couldn’t afford.

He bought the Nikes and his passion for the art of pizza grew from that day.

“Basically we try to pick regions and it’s all about fresh produce and keeping it simple but executing it really well that is our whole philosophy around our cooking and the food we serve,” Mr Di Francesco said.

“There are no bells and whistles, we just want to make sure that the food is spot on and has beautiful flavours to it – really honest cuisine.”

Of course the beautiful food on offer at 400 Gradi will be complimented with a host of beverages ranging from a variety of beers on tap, cocktails and fine wines, some which will be from local producers.

“We have an extensive wine list, including some locals wines as well,” Mr Di Francesco said.

“We love working with local producers, that’s important for us and we do that across all of our restaurants.

“Our wine list differs across our restaurants.

“We have a restaurant in Adelaide and so it has predominately Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley wines on the list.

“We have found some great wineries here and we have been getting some valuable input from Stefano de Pieri, who is an amazing wine connoisseur and has been enormously supportive of what we are doing in Mildura together with many other locals.”

There is no doubt that the addition of 400 Gradi to the Deakin and Langtree Avenue dining precinct is going to add further vibrancy to Mildura’s restaurant scene.

“The more quality restaurants that are opened in the area, the more choices people have and they want to dine out more often and have those options,” Mr Di Francesco said.

“I never see another restaurant as competition, but rather as a complimentary addition which attracts more people to a precinct and people have choice.

“If someone can’t get a booking in one restaurant, they know that they can go to another really good restaurant and so it creates a vibrancy and a great economic environment for everybody.

“We will be a destination for family dining and we will provide a casual and relaxed environment, through to the more sophisticated dining experience and we will also cater for corporate functions, wedding receptions with the restaurant being able to be sectioned-off to create private dining and separate function areas.

“In regard to the corporate sector, the whole idea was to have business meetings a boardroom style set up with food, so people can have their business meeting and then we can take it further by serving food and beverage.”

The interiors embrace 400 Gradi’s signature Italian luxe aesthetic with subtle greenery, terrazzo countertops and tables and plush upholstery. The new space, outfitted by Dean Dyson Architects, includes two dining areas, a bar serving cocktails, and two private function rooms catering to 50 and 70 guests.

Gradi will also offer something very special for the whisky connoisseur with the serving of a different single-malt whisky with each course of a degustation menu served at a beautiful table especially created for these diners.

Mr Sarrou said “joining forces with Johnny and to bring 400 Gradi to Mildura is an exciting project”.

“We are very honoured to run 400 Gradi in Mildura,” Mr Sarrou said.

“The building is a great site for the restaurant – it is really the perfect space for us and it has so much character and we have enhanced that further to create a unique dining experience.

“We have left a lot of the original features in place including the atriums, the cellar and we have built on that adding olive trees and the ‘Dethridge Wheel’ water feature.

“We have also retained the original photos and prints that were from the old ADFA and we have framed them and put them on display – keeping as much of a local influence as we can.

“I think having 400 Gradi here in Mildura is going to be great for the town and for the whole region and with so many tourist coming here this will give them another dining option adding to the variety of food in Mildura.”

Mr Di Francesco is famous for his hands-on involvement in the kitchen of his restaurants something he loves doing.

“I’m still doing it,” he said.

“You’ll see me in the kitchen here and I’ll be training our wonderful staff.

“For me it’s more about being a mentor to the younger generation of up and coming chefs and those people who are wanting to work in the industry.

“Labour has become quite scarce and there is a shortage of professionals in the industry which has come about in the last couple of years.

“What we have found is that because we have such a wonderful training team, we can pick up just about anyone who has a passion for food and mentor and train them into becoming a professional.

“We have an amazing backbone when it comes to our chefs in our group.

“They have real passion for what they do and they love training the younger generation.

“And we have found a really good crew here in Mildura and I have been really impressed by the calibre of person we have been able to attract to work with us.

“Even my boys from Melbourne are saying that everybody we have in the kitchen are really into it and are eager to learn.”

Initially, 400 Gradi will be open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner from 12 noon to 11pm and eventually, once they have settled in and have a full complement of staff, they will open seven days.

Gradi Mercato and Zero Gradi will open Wednesday to Sunday from 8am to 11pm.