‘Please bring warm clothes, comfortable shoes and an appetite.’ This was the directive given to the select group of Melbourne food and wine journalists fortunate enough to be treated to a day out on the Mornington Peninsula recently. The rollicking itinerary—designed to showcase the way Flinders ristorante e gastronomia Donna Maria is elevating the world-class local produce through their seasonal, Italian-influenced menu—would see our boots treading fertile volcanic soils, gingerly negotiating a gang plank and swishing through a quaint seaside village.
Leaving the greyscale outline of Melbourne’s CBD behind, we arrive at the sunbathed hillside of Kerri Greens Winery in Red Hill just an hour later where, under the expert guidance of vigneron and Alsace wine making royalty, Lucas Blanck, we were guided through the nine-year-old winery’s varietals and vintages. With Clinton Trevisi and Mathew Guthrie—two of Donna Maria’s three owners—prompting and bantering from the sidelines, you get a sense of just how shared their passion for impeccable local produce is.
Lucas seems to be the kind of Frenchman who sought out an antipodean existence in order to free himself of generations of tradition, roll up his sleeves and play around with his craft. And with his Frenchstralian fusion accent, down-to-earth demeanour and clay caked Blundstones you can’t help but love him for it. Lucas, and Kerri Greens’ cofounder Tom McCarthy, manage the vineyard with a strict viticulture regime that encompasses sustainable practices, and a focus on longevity and fruit intensities, rather than yield, which is apparent when we begin the wine tasting.
We begin with their delicate and refined 2021 Samphire Sauvignon Blanc before moving on to the 2021 Ohne Gewurztraminer which has all the sophistication of its old-world counterparts but with a musk stick-fragrant delicacy that’s enough to make you swoon. But it is the 2021 Pinots de Mornington Rosé, with its peach-quartz hue and juicy strawberry notes, that seems to restore my ability to feel joy. Although, the unseasonal sunshine and winery’s black Labrador, Beau, could also be contributing. We move through a back catalogue of Pinot Noirs, for which the winery is rightfully renowned, before reluctantly saying our goodbyes and making for the coast.
At Flinders Pier, Flinders Mussels’ boat, The Seahorse, bobs on the crystalline waters. We climb aboard, placing our lives in the capable and calloused hands of Harry whose eyes seem to sparkle with mischief as he watches us clamber aboard. Known as much for the exceptional quality of his mussels as he is for his lovable-rapscallion reputation, Harry ferries us towards the mussel farm he started himself more than two decades prior. Slowing the engine as we approach a vast swaying network of ropes held aloft by floating plastic drums, Harry explains that the large blue mussels he is known for take two years from the initial glochidia stage until harvest, fed by the clean undulating tides of Western Port Bay.
Port Phillip Bay mussels, he quips, receive a lot more of what he wryly calls “nutrients” due to their cityside location. Hauling up an encrusted rope, you can see how physically demanding the work is but there’s pride in Harry’s eyes. When asked what time he’s out on the water each day, his smirk returns. ‘8:00, 8:30,’ he says languidly, before adding, ‘I’m a farmer, not a fisherman.’ He pulls out a bone-handled butterknife, shucks a mussel plucked straight from the rope and offers it to the hesitant group.
Dan Lidgard, head chef at Donna Maria and one of Harry’s biggest fans, is first to accept the challenge, holding the pendulous morsel up by the beard to deposit into his mouth. Though the pair have been working alongside each other for years, this is Dan’s first time on Harry’s boat and he’s here for the full experience. Emboldened, I too step forward to accept the freshest mussel I’m ever likely to be offered. The flesh is firm, ice-cold and startlingly briny and, as a bonus, I think I’ve won Harry’s respect.
On the journey back to Flinders Pier, I chat to Clinton Trevesi as our hair whips about in the wind. He asks me what’s on for the weekend and when I stupidly reciprocate the question, he kindly reminds me what weekends mean to restaurant owners such as himself. He tells me that Donna Maria is typically booked out for two seatings each night meaning that over a hundred diners usually pass through their doors on weekends. Although, he admits in winter, the Friday night AFL fixture can dictate when the influx of city dwellers will arrive. That Donna Maria is thriving seems to be as much a product of the team’s dogged determination as it is about their passion for building an impeccable dining experience on the back of artisanal produce. Having opened its doors in 2019, after assembling a team of similarly ardent professionals, they weathered Victoria’s rolling COVID-19 lockdowns, refusing to let any of their staff go from Donna Maria, or its sister restaurant, Bistro Elba in nearby Sorrento.
After a short drive to Cook Street, we arrive at the Victorian era double shop front, complete with quaint timber awning, that houses Donna Maria. The spacious interior, with hardwood floorboards and crisp white walls, is split down the middle by ox blood button booth seating, the space bathed in honeyed light by overhead pendants. Though the design accents and artwork lining the walls smack of impeccable taste, Donna Maria is not the type of place you’d have to dial your chortle down to a titter. It’s welcoming and warm. The kind of place where you’d be encouraged to tear of a hunk of focaccia to sop up the sauce from the braised beef cheeks.
The seasonal menu —developed by Head Chef Dan Lidgard, a finalist in the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year awards in 2019, and previously of Attica, Stokehouse and Pt. Leo Estate—serves up refined interpretations of Italian favourites. The offering leans heavily on the sea’s local bounty, so it’s no surprise to see Harry’s mussels proudly featured. The accompanying wine list also echoes the Italian heartbeat of Donna Maria, featuring Italian grape varieties from wineries as close as their mates at Kerri Greens and as far as Trentino in Northern Italy.
And so, we sit—hair slightly dishevelled from our trip out with Harry—to an expansive lunch that dances a tarantella between delicacy and richness. We start with a yellowfin tuna crudo with no discernible texture whose smattering of shallot and capers, and good glug of EVO, is exactly the minimal treatment you want for the sweet flesh. Next, it’s a beef cheek and smoked scarmoza arancini, served with an herb aioli so thick you could almost sculpt with it. The fine crumb emits a satisfying crunch and yields to the warm, umami paste-like interior. Transparent slices of poached veal come next, dotted with blobs of confit tuna, and capers that I suspect have been fried. Next comes pasta. It’s malloreddus—the gnocchi fusilli hybrid painstakingly crafted by rolling a small knob of dough against a ridged wooden paddle—served with a ragu featuring Harry’s mussels, smoked.
Harry, having moored for the day, has now joined us at Donna Maria and he sits opposite me regaling the table with stories of the many reality TV offers he’s declined over the years, and his upcoming overseas trip. Because the mussel season lasts from early summer to mid-winter, Harry is free to indulge his many extracurricular passions in the down time. This year, it’ll be camping and a music festival with mates in North America. Though Harry’s the first to admit the mussel business hasn’t made him rich, it has facilitated a richness of experience that most of us can only aspire to. The final course to arrive is a highly photogenic, and equally delicious, King George whiting with sea herbs and, of course, mussels. It’s served alongside seasonal greens from Donna Maria’s own kitchen garden, and it seems that chef Dan has taken a flame thrower to them, scorching the edges to surprisingly enjoyable effect. When, at the end of the meal, we’re joined by the man himself he accepts our compliments humbly and you can see that doesn’t do it for the praise.
That’s the common thread between the places we’ve visited today. From the boys at Kerri Greens Winery, to Harry the local legend, to the Donna Maria team, what they do comes from a desire for excellence and the life-affirming pleasure derived from striving for it. So, please bring warm clothes, comfortable shoes and an appetite. The Mornington Peninsula is waiting to welcome you.
Kerri Greens Winery and cellar door offers wine tasting and serves boutique, hand crafted wines. BYO picnics, beers by Hop Nation Brewery.
38 Paringa Rd, Red Hill South VIC 3937
Flinders Mussels supplies fresh mussels direct to the public from the boat at the Flinders Pier and cooked mussels served with crusty bread and your choice of a house-made laksa or Napoli sauce from The Flinders Conchilia, located in the carpark of the Flinders foreshore.
Mussels are available from late December until mid-winter.
Donna Maria is open for dinner, 7 nights, 5pm till late and lunch, Friday to Sunday.
52 Cook Street, Flinders Vic 3929
Phone (03) 5989 0160