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Armando Percuoco sitting in his garden in the Hunter Valley

At Home with Armando Percuoco

One of the giants of Australia’s restaurant history, Armando Percuoco, invites us into his kitchen.

It’s hard to put into words just how influential Armando Percuoco was on the evolution of Sydney dining. From humble beginnings in Napoli, this is the man who created one of the most celebrated neighbourhood restaurants in Australia with the legendary Buon Ricardo. Now I’m at his table, in the rustic environs of his Valleyfield Escape property just outside Wollombi, hanging onto every word. 

“Simplicity is the key with this dish, no more than four ingredients.” This mantra becomes a motif for my morning, as Percuoco shows me the key to making a traditional Napoletana pasta. “You brown the whole cloves of garlic to flavour the oil and then remove them and bake the tomatoes.” Simple indeed, and simply ingenious. Using the pan with the garlic oil, he throws in quarters of tomatoes to roast. Ten minutes later, said tomatoes reappear burnished and full of flavour. Salt is added, and basil leaves roughly torn into a bowl of store-bought spaghetti (not handmade).
“In Napoli we would traditionally use pasta from a packet – we would only make pasta by hand at the weekends,” says Percuoco, dispelling stereotypes of nonnas slaving in the kitchen, making it clear that simple and easy is best when it comes to entertaining. 

Trust me when I say the man knows – before he retired six years ago, he had spent an incredible 58 years in the kitchen or front of house, peddling his unique version of hospitality. The meal is seasoned with storytelling. 

“This dish is what Tetsuya would ask me to cook after service when he used to join me in the restaurant,” he says. Such humble bragging might be seen as flagrant name-dropping, but it just comes down to the fact that this patron saint of conviviality would often entertain Neil Perry and Tetsuya Wakuda when the public were long gone. “We would often sit at midnight, make food, drink wine and just chat.” It’s easy to forget the amazing history of hospitality Percuoco brings to the table. He established Buon Ricardo in the late 80s – a move that would see this legendary Paddington terrace consistently full for decades to come. 

Armando Percuoco enjoying a glass of red wine in his Wollombi home



Buon Ricardo has not lost one of its customers over the years. It feels like a home. It’s that spirit of hospitality that sees loyalty from staff, also, and not just the paying public. Many of the faces at Buon Ricardo became part of the furniture: sommelier Nick Caraturo has notched up a quarter of a century on the floor, while the current owner David Wright moved up the ranks from being an apprentice chef to now-owner who, alongside his wife, works in the kitchen.

As Percuoco said to his staff, “If you show me the willingness to work, I’ll show you my wallet,” ensuring that those who showed loyalty were either repaid with a pay rise, or the confidence to get a mortgage knowing they had job security. And he was one of the first to give the kitchen brigade 10 per cent of the tips that the floor staff brought in, making for a democratic and familial crew – a gesture taken up by other wise restauranteur friends like Neil Perry, to ensure a more egalitarian approach to looking after staff.   

If you had to sum up hospitality, it would be a mixture of charm, warmth and inclusivity. Some restaurateurs at the top of their game exude it in spades. Spend a few hours in the company of Percuoco and you realise he epitomises everything that good hospitality is. And he’s at pains to reinforce the notion that “Without the customer, we are nothing. Treat them like family and they will keep coming back.”

Unashamedly Italian, he speaks with an irresistible sing-song accent and gestures with an energy and passion that belies his age (he’s a sprightly and untameable 78-year-old). Cutting a svelte figure, he puts it down to the fact that the Mediterranean diet truly makes sense. “Italians don’t really eat a lot of meat, we enjoy a few simple things: olive oil, vegetables, fish, herbs and grains.” In a time of fad diets, it’s hard to deny the benefits of living the Italian way.

Armando Percuoco's garden in his home near Wollombi

Armando Percuoco picking olives on his olive farm near Wollombi



You could say Percuoco was born to be in restaurants with a family lineage that can be traced back five generations. “My father’s family had a smart restaurant and my mother ran a trattoria; there was simply no question of me working in any other profession.” 

Starting work on the floor from 15 years of age, Percuoco was far more curious about the kitchen and the enticing pull it exerted. Instead of working in just the family restaurant, he was told to go and work with some of the best chefs of Naples, including a stint at a two-Michelin-starred venue. 

“The kitchens of the late 60s were brutal, run by hellish tyrants, and the hierarchy was such that you never directly spoke to the head chef. I remember being insubordinate and swearing at the chef only to be rewarded with a cast-iron pan thrown directly at my head! I never spoke to him again.” 

The kitchens were a place of ritual humiliation too. “Tricks were played on us constantly; one time we were asked to try the famed pork cotoletta dish, only to find that what we were tasting was the oily cloth we all used to clean pans that had been coated in breadcrumbs and fried!”

Percuoco recounts the revelation that followed. “After we passed our cooking credentials it was customary to break bread with our mentors. I asked the senior chefs why they were such hard taskmasters – it turns out my father had asked them to be. It was tough but it taught me to be resilient and strong.” 

Armando Percuoco cooking tomatoes for his spaghetti Napoletana recipe

Armando Percuoco feeding the cattle on his farm near Wollombi

Treat them like family, and they will keep coming back.

- Armando Percuoco

In the early 70s the Mafia (specifically the Camora organisation) posed a real threat as restaurateurs were forced to pay protection money – those that didn’t were actually getting shot by mafia henchmen on the back of Vespas for failing to do so. His father decided a new life would be better and that Australia was the answer, leaving his son running the family business. Within a year Percuoco followed his father and never looked back.

“When I arrived, my father was keen to open a venue. I told him, ‘we can’t open anything in Australia, I know no English and we don’t know any one – we will just have to wait.’” And wait they did. 

Shrewdly, Percuoco started working for the best Italian restaurant he could find (Arriverdeci in Bayswater Road). It was here that the powerful Sydney Morning Herald food critic Leo Schofield wrote such a glowing review that, as Percuoco recounts, “Leo did not want to share the address of the restaurant as he thought it would ruin his chances of getting a table and stated in the paper if you want to know the location, please write in – they received 7,000 letters later and we got so busy we had to move premises.”

From Arriverdeci to another great Italian eatery, Chianti, and then to his first restaurant Pucinella and a debut cookbook. But it was the launch of Buon Ricardo in 1987 that really cemented his place as a pioneer of regional Italian cooking. Part of the love from his adoring customers was that Percuoco was always present as the proud patriarch of the establishment. At the end of service, the sommelier would ding the glass and tell the assembled dining room that chef was thirsty, and then began Percuoco’s merry dance around the tables of his loyal fans, sharing a glass and always smiling – people returned, and returned again. 



By his side through it all, his wife Gemma – a pivotal part of his career, helping with the books and on the floor at Buon Ricardo for more than three decades, creating that sense of extended family. At Valleyfield Escape, they’ve crafted an idyllic mecca for their retirement, surrounded by sculptures and olive trees. 
Olives are harvested for re-sale and veggies are grown to ensure a bountiful, self-sustainable existence. Visitors escape their troubles with a stay at the guest house. The place is dotted with clues to a life surrounded by art, food and wine, and always full of friends and family. What is that, but the true beating heart of hospitality?

Words by
Patrick Haddock
Photography by
Kat Forrest
Published on
9 Feb 2024


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