Full of good memories

Cooking and life are meant to be easy, says Armando Percuoco OAM, renowned chef and former owner of Buon Ricordo, one of Sydney’s most acclaimed Italian restaurants.

When his father Mario suggested the Percuoco family leave Camorra infested Naples for a better life in Australia in the early 1970s, young Armando wasn’t impressed. “I said, ‘we should go to a civilized country, let’s go to the US’. I really didn’t want to come to Australia.”

“And look at us now,” he adds with what can only be described as signature Italian flourish, “I couldn’t live in Italy anymore.”

Together with his partner Gemma Cunningham, 75-year-old Armando is enjoying active retirement at Valleyfield, a historic rural property near Laguna in the Wollombi Valley. It’s been three years since he decided to leave Buon Ricordo in the trusted hands of chef David Wright, and 2022 will mark 50 years since he first set foot Down Under.

Plenty of milestones to warrant a walk down memory lane, or rather, a leisurely stroll down the meandering paths crisscrossing the lovingly tended gardens of this 100-hectare property, dotted with an impressive and eclectic collection of sculptures at every turn. Then, of course, there’s a sizeable orchard and vegetable garden featuring an impressive, ready-to-harvest crop of oranges, asparagus, fennel, cavolo nero, cabbage and a variety of herbs.

With its beautifully renovated early 1900s homestead, luxurious guest house and gardens that provide both a backdrop for his love of the arts as well as fresh produce for his kitchen, the property, feels like a tangible representation of the most important ingredients to the recipe of Armando’s life.

The passion for great food and the hospitality bug run deep in the Percuoco family; it is almost uncanny that the Italian phrase, ‘per cuoco’ translates as ‘for the cook’.

“My great grandfather had the first restaurant in Naples with white tablecloths,” Armando remembers fondly. “We are six brothers and sisters, and five of us are working in hospitality. The sixth went into the printing business and would print all our menus.” From a young age, Armando’s interest in cooking had been nurtured by his mother Olimpia, and he went to work in the kitchen at 14.

Yet, when his father Mario suggested they open a restaurant together in Sydney in 1972, Armando was reluctant. “I didn’t know anything about the produce in this country, and I didn’t even speak or understand English yet.” But Pulcinella, often described as ‘a favourite eatery of Sydney’s lawyers, politicians, journalists, actors and criminals’ became an instant success. Several other ventures followed, most notably Buon Ricordo where Armando served up his signature traditional, authentic Italian cuisine, using only the freshest seasonal ingredients. Italy’s Grazie magazine rated his Fettucine al Tartufovo as “the best pasta in the world.”

Read more in the Summer issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Cornelia Schulze, photography by Joshua Hogan