Farm Vigano at South Morang is best known as an important link to Mario and Teresa Vigano, a prominent Melbourne Italian restaurant family.
The Vigano’s owned one of Melbourne’s seminal Italian restaurants, Mario’s, mid last century. The family’s influence on Melbourne’s cuisine continued with granddaughters Patricia (formerly of Mietta’s, Queenscliff), and the late Mietta O’Donnell.
After years of deterioration, Mint Inc has injected significant funds to rejuvenate the two buildings on the property and replant the orchard, vegetable and ornamental gardens. Following considerable conservation works and sustainable development of the site, the home was re-opened to the public in 2012 as the contemporary Farm Vigano Cuccina, continuing the produce based Italian food heritage of the site.
Mario and Maria Teresa Vigano bought the 30 hectare piece of land along the Plenty River in 1934 to provide produce for their famous city Restaurant, Mario’s. More importantly, the Viganós used it as a retreat from the pressures of the restaurant, which also served as their city dwelling. The original small weatherboard cottage was enhanced by its spectacular setting overlooking a sweeping section of the Plenty River, near the Plenty Gorge. By the early 1950s, the cottage was extended and rebuilt in at least seven stages into a three-storied, imposing brick and weatherboard residence, reflecting an understanding of their approach to hospitality and family life.
Starting out in a small dining room, Mario’s restaurant quickly grew to become Australia’s largest and most prominent Italian restaurant. Here, in the early days, guests could savour a glass of red wine and a fine Italian meal cooked by some of Italy’s best chefs for 2/6. Mario and Maria Teresa, by introducing new ways of dining and entertaining based on good food and music from Italy and elsewhere, helped Melbourne shake off its dowdy social scene and legacy of ‘wowserism’ forever.
The Viganó’s passion for hospitality, fine food and the arts continued in their children and grandchildren. This generation of restaurateurs have repeated the profound impact on the cuisine and cultural life of Australia. Mietta O’Donnell, with partner Tony Knox and support from sisters Patricia and Robin Moser, opened the first Mietta’s restaurant in North Fitzroy in 1974.
At Farm Vigano, several distinctive Italian cultural references were incorporated, such as the stone walling on the drive, similar to mountain roads in Italy, and the boarded chalet style gable ends. The French doors and iron balustrades overlooked the formal garden terraces below and spectacular views of the valley. The garden gates were one of the first major commissions for noted metal craftsman and engineer Gio Batta Stella, who later established a large workshop in Carlton. The impressive terrazzo bathroom provides and example of Maria’s superb colour sense, also used throughout the house.
The size and design of the suite of entertainment areas of the house also has a strong European character, recalling the grandeur of the lounge rooms of a modern Italian ocean liner of the time. Under Ferdi’s influence, the property was developed into a model farm, with sprawling fruit and vegetable gardens, a piggery, a prize Fresian dairy heard and stables for horses.
The house and garden overlook a hairpin bend of the Plenty River, with bush land rising from the steep hills opposite. Originally the house was approached along a straight drive from Plenty Rd, followed by a curved section with an avenue of trees announcing the complex of farm buildings and dairy cottage. A sense of formality was established by a stone wall and large pine trees that marked the descent to the house, where an entrance terrace greeted visitors.
The garden was landscaped with formal terraces relating to the house and the property’s sweeping, sloping lawns. The tennis court and row of pencil cypresses were added sometime in the late 1950s or early 60s. At the bottom of the drive an axial path connected the terraced and lawn areas with the formally laid out productive gardens, which contained a variety of fruit trees and vegetables extending down almost to the river.
Together Mario and Maria Teresa Viganó created ‘The Farm’ as both a focus for family life and as a salon for influential and progressive people in Melbourne society, the visual arts and music. It functioned as an extension of Mario’s restaurant, providing hospitality and a venue for many memorable social functions and community fund-raising throughout the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, especially for the Italian auxiliary of the Royal Children’s Hospital.
For Maria Teresa, the farm provided her with not only a chance to enjoy quality family times, but a place where she could indulge in her life-long passion for painting. The Milan-trained artist, an important Post Impressionist painter in her own right, had several studios, one attached to the lower cottage and another in the house with a dramatic view over the Plenty River and its bush landscape, which she grew to love. Many of her landscapes, for which she was renowned, were produced at South Morang.
The property provides a tangible link with a now almost vanished era when immigrant Italians established restaurants that brought a more diverse culinary experience to everyday Australians. A handful of venues – Florentino’s, Pelligrini’s, The Italian Waiters Club, The University Café and possibly The Latin – survive yet Farm Viganó is unique in that it was deliberately created for entertaining as an extension of Mario’s restaurant.