Toscano’s Family Table – Recipes and Writings by Joanne Toscano

Making the most of Australia’s fabulous fruit and vegetables – Italian style

By Robyn Lewis
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Toscano's Family Table - by Joanne Toscano

Toscano's Family Table - by Joanne Toscano


Fresh food! For decades in Australia, we have taken it for granted – the never-ending piles of colourful fruit and veg in our shops, supermarkets and now farmers’ markets. The variety of what we can grow and buy in Australia is astonishing, and it’s only when a cyclone hits our banana plantations we’re aware of scarcity.

Overseas travel has opened our eyes however to the fact that many countries, and millions of people, don’t have it this good: either they don’t have enough, or as much variety, or what they do have lacks in flavour and nutrition, and is tired by the time it reaches them.

Yes, Australians have lots of fabulous choice. Now add the growing awareness of GMOs, herbicides and pesticides, food miles and ethical production, and suddenly it seems, we’re becoming a lot more discerning about where and how our food is grown.

Combine this with the increasing realisation that for our big supermarkets to maintain 10%+ growth p.a., the only way they can is by squeezing farmers to the bone, and inevitably, to import more food from countries with cheaper costs, and less rigorous standards.

Right now though, much of our food is still grown in Australia, but as a nation we weren’t always so lucky when it came to the variety on offer. It’s not long since broccoli was almost a novelty, the only place you could get mangoes was in Queensland at Christmas-time, and Asian greens were unheard of.

Such was the era when Italian immigrant Pasquale Toscano opened a fruit shop in Melbourne’s Elwood.  Their start was not easy. Pasquale had arrived before World War II, and met and married his Italian bride Nunziata in Melbourne.  Many Italians in Australia were detained during the war; the Toscanos were lucky to avoid that, but trade was slow and the business precarious.

However, as their granddaughter Joanne Toscano recounts, ‘through hard work, quality producer and friendly service’ they prospered, and gained the respect of the community. By 1950 and with three young children, they had outgrown their old shop, and moved east to Kew.

Times were starting to change. Melbourne was growing, and Australian tastes and cooking styles evolved from mixed grills, roasts and casseroles (largely thanks to the multicultural influence of immigration). The family moved again, just up the road to 217 High St. Kew, still the perfect location after fifty years.

The Toscanos’ love and deep knowledge of flavoursome produce, knowledge of the Italian way of presentation, and a commitment to friendly service attracted a loyal group of customers; enough for their son Joe to leave school at 14 and enter the business – and he’s still there now!

Today, Toscano’s is run by the third generation – of which author Joanne Toscano is one – and is as committed to great food as ever. It’s become a Melbourne institution, and Toscano’s now has stores in Toorak and Richmond.

Joanne Toscano is neither chef not established author, but was approached by the publisher Slattery’s – known for their quality food publications, and with an eye to emerging trends – to put together Toscano’s Family Table.  In this lovely book, she showcases her Italian family origins and loves – cooking, eating, sharing with family, and the occasional glass of wine, and recipes tried and tested over three generations.

But it’s not all Italian. Her mother Anne Coates’ Anglo heritage also plays an influence. Anne was on a steep learning curve when she married Joe Toscano in 1967, and had to overcome her nausea at the smell of Parmesan to learn to love Italian food and culture.

She expanded on her in-law’s traditional recipes and become an early expert in what we now call fusion cuisine; many of her and Joe’s recipes are in the book.

The recipes are divided as an Italian meal: Antipasti (‘before the meal’), Insalati, Primi (pasta, rice and soups), Secondi (meat, poultry and seafood), Contorni (vegetables – their favourites, of course!) and Dolce.

The antipasti recipe for Sautéed Calamari with Garlic, Chilli and Oregano is a winner (and so easy) as is Joanne’s brother Pat’s recipes for Zucchini Flowers, in a very light batter more like tempura. The Lime Aïoli with Fried Fresh Sardines (or any fresh fish) is fabulous, too.

Salads are not an afterthought in Italian cuisine, but are used to refresh the palate (they can also be served after, or with the main). Some are basic like the Rocket, Pear and Parmesan, others more a dish in themselves, such as Smoked Trout, Kipfler Potatoes and Rocket with Horseradish Dressing.

Joanne warns that the recipes in the Primi section are quite large, and can easily serve as a main course. They range from soups such as Fennel and Celeriac, and Minestrone to  Seafood Linguini, Gnocchi with Beef Ragu to her mother’s recipes for Spaghetti with Meatballs and her famous Lasagne.

Still hungry? Move onto King George Whiting with Wine, Butter and Caper Sauce (see recipe below) and Roasted Quail with Caramelised Pear (also below) to Roast Lamb Shoulder (enlivened with chilli and balsamic) and Osso Bucco Milanese style (without the tomatoes).

It’s no surprise that the Toscanos love vegetables, and these recipes can be for side dishes, or vegetarian mains. Some are cooked on the barbecue, e.g. Chargrilled Broccoli with Garlic, Chili and Anchovies, others roaster or sautéed. Her recipe for Fried Okra comes from her Sri Lankan brother-in-law, and is delicious.

Desserts are an exciting part of any meal, especially when entertaining (or for families with children). These are relatively simple and rely on the ingredients – mainly fruit – for their impact. There are both summer and winter recipes for Poached Pears, a fabulous and easy Lemon, Polenta and Ricotta Cake, and for those who can’t live without chocolate, Profiteroles with Chocolate Sauce.

The Baked Figs are as simple as they are delicious, and the tip for Caramelised Rhubarb (with Pannacotta) is a winner in my family too.

There follows three generations’ worth of tips for selecting fresh produce, in a huge section called ‘Ask the Fruiterer’ (pages 135-221) which covers everything from apples (many varieties, with seasons) to zucchini – perfect for a novice, or to learn more about an ingredient with which you’re unfamiliar.

Far more than a glossary, this section also includes individual histories of the fruits and vegetables sold in their shop, explaining the different varieties and how they came to be embraced – sometimes reluctantly – by the Australian people.

Their main advice though, is to ‘never be afraid to ask’, and it’s here of course that Toscano’s has it over the supermarkets, where the State or country of origin is often unknown by the sales staff, should you be fortunate enough to find one to ask.

I read that ‘Joanne worked on the book for a year, interviewing family members and tracking down old photos, all in-between juggling three children and work at the shops.’ It certainly shows, as does her and her family’s love of food, and of sharing.

The book ends with Joanne’s heartfelt thanks to Toscano’s customers, their staff, the publishers, her family, but most of all to their wonderful suppliers. When they started, 95% of their produce came from within Victoria; now it’s sourced from all around Australia.

We are indeed fortunate to live in this land of plenty, and also for people like the Toscanos and Joanne especially for sharing their expertise and love of fresh, good food. With this book we can all eat better, have more fun cooking, and enjoy Australia’s bounty even more.

Toscano’s Family Table – Recipes and Writings by Joanne Toscano is published by Slattery Press (Richmond, Victoria, 2013; hc, 228 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$50. subscribers can purchase Toscano’s Family Table direct from the publisher by clicking on the image below (postage free in Australia).

Buy Toscano's Family Table from The Slattery Media Group


Two recipes from the book are shared below.


  • Melbourne (VIC)

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September 27th, 2013
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