Style meets substance when this designer couple invite friends and family for an evening of authentic Italian fare.
Guess who’s coming to dinner … Sandy Porcaro and Mark Gregory
The wow-factor is immediate as you enter the stunning home of Sandy Porcaro and husband Mark Gregory in Unley Park.
The stylish couple owns Sago Luxury on Unley Road, importing luxury homewares and clothing including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, McQueen and Balmain.
Tonight’s table setting reflects the luxury, high-end feel with iconic Versace Rosenthal and Wedgewood tableware creating a colourful, stylish statement. There are also gold Versace embossed menus and name tags, and a centrepiece featuring orchids and scented candles.
It’s an inviting, warm atmosphere as guests arrive and begin tucking into the antipasto of cured meats, cheeses and deep-fried pickled vegetables.
But it quickly becomes clear the real star of the show here is Sandy’s grassroots Italian cooking.
Sandy and sister Carmen Andary are a formidable team, moving seamlessly around each other in the kitchen as they add the finishing touches to tonight’s meal. First course, prima, is cannelloni (meat, spinach and ricotta) topped with fresh sauce and shaved parmesan. Sandy, Carmen and their mum Antoinetta prepared the homemade pasta the day before. All of tonight’s dishes reflect the food that has been part of the Porcaro family for generations.
While Sandy and Carmen embrace their cultural heritage today, that wasn’t always the case. Like many Italian kids growing up in Australia during the ’60s and ’70s, Sandy admits it took years to fully appreciate her Italian background.
“My sister and I didn’t want salami or roasted capsicum in our lunch box, we wanted to be normal Aussie kids and have Vegemite sandwiches,” Sandy laughs.
She remembers as a kid seeing her parents and extended family getting together for the annual pig slaughtering day, which took place in the family garage. As a result, Sandy stopped eating red meat at age 11.
“It really did put me off,” she says. “I can cook it for other people but I don’t like eating red meat or pork.”
However, one tradition she does hold dear is the tomato sauce-making day that also took place in the garage.
“I was only talking about this to my sister the other day because I worry that tradition will be lost once Mum and Dad are gone,” Sandy says. “We just won’t have the time to do all that. You’ve got to get the right tomatoes from the market gardener, then spend time picking out all the best ones, skin them, boil them. Then, someone washes all the bottles and sterilises them, while someone else does the basil. It’s so much work.”
Yet, through all these visceral childhood memories there is one endearing emotion that stays with Sandy — the celebration of food bringing family together.
“For me, food and eating together cements family time and respect,” she says. “Everything for us revolves around food, it’s that social aspect.
“I even remember getting home from nightclubs at 1am with girlfriends and cousins and mum would get up and say, ‘Are you girls hungry?’ and put on a pot of spaghetti!”
Tonight, guests are seated as the second course arrives; carne arrosto con patete, (potatoes and porterhouse steak cooked by Mark on the barbecue) and gamberi con piselli salad topped with feta dressing (garlic prawns with pea and feta salad).
“She always spends two days preparing for a dinner party,” Mark says. “And she always gets nervous cooking for bigger numbers but I don’t know why because she’s a great cook.”
While Mark was born in India and grew up in England, he loves Italian food and by now he can now tell the difference between good Italian and bad, says Sandy.
“I learnt from Mum that when it comes to Italian cooking, less is more. So, keep it simple and use good produce, then you’ll get a good sauce and a good meal,” she says. “That’s the Italian way, because they come from farming backgrounds, and it’s all about the freshness and what’s in season. We knew winter was time for pork, the legumes, the lentils, while summer was more about the tomatoes.”
Running the business means Sandy doesn’t always have time to cook. She travels overseas regularly on buying trips to Europe and Hong Kong (she loves Chinese food), and often works long hours in the shop. She has always had a strong work ethic, starting off as a coordinator in a hairdressing salon and working various jobs, including a stint where she owned a Rundle Street cafe called Backstage Cafe.
“I learnt people skills through that cafe because I was serving tables,” she says. “We had the cafe during the very first Grand Prix in 1985 and it was unbelievable, heaps of people, busy, fantastic atmosphere. Those were the days.”
Sandy and Mark have been in business together since the 1990s, having weathered recessions and the global downturn of 2009. Sandy puts their survival down to hard work and diversification.
“You have to go with the flow in the sense that if you’re too overstretched in resources then it will all come tumbling down,” she says. “When online started coming through we changed things to be more bespoke — so our suits are tailor-made and menswear is a big part of our business now. The key is to know what your customers want. We have customers that have had babies and those babies have grown up and now come in to buy jeans. It’s bizarre.”
Some of tonight’s guests started out as clients and have become close friends, such as Helen Pitts and husband Nick, who is a production manager at Frontier Touring Company.
Music forms a major part of the evening, with classic old music videos playing on the television in the background. Mark, a musician who has been in several bands, also collects music memorabilia and guitars, including two rare Hofner guitars.
Other guests tonight include Peter Alldritt and Martin Oldfield, Nick Sparr, Paul Dare, Diane Sparr and Chad Hamra and wife Sarah, who is Sandy’s niece and was a contestant on My Kitchen Rules.
This is a close and cohesive group of friends who share a long history. They always celebrate Christmas together at Sandy and Mark’s on Christmas Eve. Mark’s daughter Natasha, who lives in Melbourne, also comes over for the occasion, with her husband Steve and their young children Elivia and Mateo.
Sandy and Carmen always take charge of the cooking, preparing a traditional turkey meal with all the trimmings.
“I think prep is a big thing because if you get caught off guard on the day you’re just going to be flustered,” Sandy says. “During one Christmas dinner here, our oven went on the blink while I was cooking the chickens. It was a wreck of a Christmas. I ended up going to Tandoori Oven to buy chickens and I threw mine out. The main thing is to be calm.”
She may remain calm but Sandy admits she rarely sits down until all the work is done.
“I’m in and out of the kitchen,” she says. “I like to sit down afterwards when I can relax. But at all our family get-togethers, it’s always me and Carmen in the kitchen, and Mark. He’s a great help. He’s quite creative when it comes to table setting. He loves decorating and he does all our Christmas decorations.”
Throughout the evening, Carmen tells a story that dates back to when she and Sandy were aged 11 and 10 years old. Their parents took them to Italy to meet their 100-year-old great grandmother, Elena.
“She hugged us and kissed us and she cried,” Carmen says. “We were very overwhelmed. Then she said to my father, ‘These children, what will they eat? Will they eat what we cook?’ She was so concerned about us and our food. It’s always about the food for us. That is where we come from.”
Later in the evening dessert appears. There’s homemade Italian cheesecake, a homemade osmalieh (a traditional Lebanese semolina custard dessert made by Carmen) and gluten-free berry torte supplied by Muratti Cakes and Gateaux.
Looking more relaxed, Sandy says bringing people together and creating great food is what she loves about entertaining.
“The thing with Italian food is it’s so simple but you can get it wrong,” she says
Judging by the smiling faces, full wine glasses and empty plates, it looks like tonight’s effort has been a recipe for success.
This story first appeared in the September 2019 issue of SALIFE magazine.