“We grew up - and we never had canned spaghetti. But for most other Kiwi’s it was the norm. We had a privileged sort of upbringing with our food” Leonardo Bresolin tells me, over a bottle of blood orange soda at Scopa on Cuba Street.
Known throughout the city as being the original home of street style authentic Italian pizza, Scopa is iconic to Wellington. Behind it, the Bresolin family are legendary in their service to Wellington’s food scene over the years from Remiro Bresolin to his sons. But every legacy begins in a humble fashion, just like all great dishes start with oil, salt, pepper, onions or garlic. Leonardo, the eldest brother of the family, kindly agrees to give me a flavour of the years, the work and the love that has kept him working in Wellington.
Leonardo’s father Remiro Bresolin came from Italy. He was lured to New Zealand by a Kiwi girl. While the romance didn’t last but his love affair with New Zealand did. In 1972 he got together with some friends and opened ‘La Casa Pizza’ delivering the first batch of hot Pizza to the antipodes. It was completely novel.
Not long after Leonardo’s parent met. His mother recently had opened the Taj Mahal (now the Welsh Dragon Bar), a cafe which had an espresso machine. “Separately they used to go to the markets” Leonardo tells me, “And my mum was like when she saw my father, ‘Hm, who's this guy. He’s a bit different.’ Her entry into meeting him was the line: ‘I’ve got an espresso machine, can you show me how to use it?’ The rest is history.” Remiro decided he wanted to set up the most Italian of all restaurants - so they did it together.
In 1976 the couple opened a new restaurant experience for Wellington, the grandly titled Ill Casino. His father cooked. His mother was the face at the front. The area the restaurant was situated in was far from illustrious for Wellington - but his father embraced the chaos and cultural diversity. A few years later, Leonardo’s mother returned to Italy and brought back Remiro’s sister’s family. Franko, his sister’s husband, became the chef of Ill Casino. This, Leonardo says, became the backbone of Ill Casino.
I Bambini Bresolin
Locating Italian ingredients in Wellington in the 1970s was difficult - the family had to use what was available locally as well as taking on the challenge of introducing Kiwi’s to new flavours, like Calamari. As a child, Leonardo would go after football into the restaurant and watch the chefs do prep. He would hollow out a baguette and fill the shell with bolognese, eating it greedily. “We were annoying little shits to everyone around in the kitchen” he laughs. He also remembers gorging himself on the toffee of creme caramel.
The Bresolin’s ate differently to that of the average Kiwi in the 1980s. “At Dad’s house, the fridge was filled with Parmesan - never normal cheese or marmite. It wasn’t normal. We never had the typical ingredients to make a cake or what have you. But we were very lucky in many ways. For example, I remember going to our Aunty’s house and picking fresh tomatoes and loving the rich clean scent. The smell of tomatoes and fresh eggs are beautiful.”
Leonardo grew up in Eastbourne and went to Wellesley College. After his parents split up, they moved around a lot. After primary school, Leonardo went to Wellington College. While he enjoyed the arts and playing football for fun, Leonardo admits he didn’t really enjoy school. He began working part time as a teenager at Ill Casino as a glassie, slowly learning the trade on a Friday or Saturday night. While most of his friends would be out and about at friends houses, Leonardo would work one night and have the other for play. “I’m a bit of a work horse really” he admits.
At the end of school, Leonardo saw his friends going their separate ways. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to study. My father wanted me to get a tertiary education however so I looked into hospitality schools in New Zealand and Australia. Eventually I found there was a school in Switzerland. I thought it sounded pretty cool.”
Leonardo applied for a scholarship to a Swiss school for hotel management, got it and soon found himself winging his way to Switzerland where he stayed for 3 years. The school was located in an old castle in Caux and was strict but rewarding. For his first year, he studied 16 different subjects in Food and Beverage for 6 months and then in the second 6 months of the year the students went and worked in a practical job. Leonardo also loved the travel that Europe afforded. “That was part of it” he says, “You got to embrace other cultures.”
When Leonardo returned to Wellington he promptly got a job working at the Duxton part-time working in the front office. After this proved to be a dead end he moved to work full-time for his father, moving over time into a management role. His father taught him lessons, not only in work but in life. “He would teach us to appreciate the value. Not just to expect things but to work for them. He taught us right from wrong, old school from new school. He was a very unique persona and could get away with a lot more than we could. He could cross the line big time and get away with it.”
Scopa Cucina: "It just took off"
In 2005 the Ill Casino business was closed for building restrengthening. At the same time, the location for Scopa came up. It was suggested as a way to get cash flow, to do pizza, pasta and pannini’s. “My brother and I were skeptical at first. We made a few changes, put a pizza oven in. And a simple menu. It just took off. It was totally what we didn’t expect” he remembers, still sounding surprised all these years later. “I had come from a formal background - so moving into a cafe environment was great” he explains. “I brought the skills from a old school service system into the new cafe environment. It’s so important to make people feel welcome. It’s the small things that make a difference - wobbly tables, glasses being cleared - they were the things that would send my Dad crazy. They now drive me crazy too.”
Then there was a further unexpected twist. In 2006 Remiro Bresolin got sick. It was straight after the new restaurant opened and right in the middle of Leonardo’s long awaited holiday. It was while he was away that he received the news. The question came up: Did Leonardo want to take over Ill Casino? After much deliberation, he and his brother decided that the weight of the old business would be too much. They chose to focus on the new bambino, Scopa. After Remiro passed away, their friend Simon came on board and ended up acting as a father figure to bounce ideas off and develop the business to the level they are at today.
People and Partners
Leonardo has enjoyed working with different people over the years, from Tommy from Tommy Millions Pizza on Courtney Place through to the partnership behind the more recent Bresolin restaurant at the top of Willis Street. For the Bresolin boys, successful businesses are founded on successful relationships - and this is what drives their investment into the future of Wellington hospitality.
Leonardo thinks the hardest thing for Wellington to overcome is the small population paired with the wanderlust Wellingtonians have for travelling overseas. For example, he has found keeping a good chef challenging at times - there is not a bottomless pool of talent. “If Wellington had more people, that would be awesome” he says. On the other hand, he is optimistic about the city and its advantages. “Wellington is unique. We are well known for food and beverage. The community in Wellington is friendly; we get on well. It’s not about competition but about feeding off one another. It is so small that you see the same people and get to know everybody.”
La Famiglia per la futura
Today life is all about family still - just this time his own. Partner Wiki and his two boys are Leonardo's focus away from work. Is the hospitality life for his children? Only time will tell. But the legacy will live on in some sense at least. Giving his children an understanding of work one day is fundamental for Leonardo. After that he insists it is up to them to decide what they want to do. “If you enjoy hospitality, it’s very rewarding.”