Around a sweeping bend on a road in the Buckland Valley (near Bright, about 3.5 hour’s drive from Melbourne) nestled under Mount Buffalo, you’ll find Villa Gusto – a little slice of Italy right here in Australia.
Offering divine luxury accomodation, taking inspiration from southern Italy and filled with gorgeous rich tones, authentic tapestries and centuries-old antiques (and Bvlgari toiletries in the bathroom), Villa Gusto has 7 suites to choose from, all looking out over different parts of the garden, with views to the majestic mountain above.
The ornamental garden also includes a large chook pen (nicknamed the Penthouse) full of lovely brown hens who obligingly lay their eggs for your breakfast, as well as a big organic veggie patch, overseen by a super-friendly lady by the name of Signorina Fellini, a large silky tabby-cat.
We arrive for dinner promptly, as our host Colin has advised us the meal begins at 7pm sharp. If you’ve had a wander around the garden or taken a seat on the terrazzo beforehand to take in the view, it’s likely he’ll have offered you a pre-dinner drink, and some Prosecco is definitely in order.
The King Valley wine region is right on our doorstep here, and its cool, even climate is perfect for growing fabulous Italian varietals like Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Vin Santo and of course Prosecco. The first Australian-made Prosecco was in fact produced right here, at Dal Zotto Winery, and it’s easily one of the best we’ve had. Similarly one of the loveliest Sangiovese we’ve had the pleasure to imbibe comes from just down the road at Whitfield, courtesy of the delightfully affable Fred Pizzini and the team at Pizzini Wines.
But I digress. The dinner menu at Villa Gusto is thus: 4 courses, predetermined by seasonal availability, containing all locally- sourced ingredients, and based on traditional, rustic Italian fare, specifically from the south of Italy, and accompanied, if you wish (we wished), by matching wines.
We were treated to an apertura of shellfish broth, a recipe that had been passed down through the generations of one particular family in Amalfi, since 1864. This was a mouthwatering combination of vongole (pippies), mussels, a large bug tail, and a ladleful of delicate brodo. Even our non-shellfish-eating dining companion was moved to down this bowlful of goodness. This was followed by a housemade canneloni filled with local smoked trout from Harrietville, dill sauce, with black truffle (hello!) and flavoured with a splash of Vermentino, a white Italian varietal. A gorgeous combination of flavours, and the canneloni was a perfectly bitey aldente.
Secondi arrived – pollo di latte, which is quite simply, chicken in milk. But a Millawa free range chicken it was, and slow cooked all day so that it simply fell away from the bones, and served with a crunchy, crumbed eggplant slice, and some fresh steamed greens. There was a hint of chilli which warmed the cockles of my heart, and when enjoyed with a 2009 Vinea Marson Sangiovese from Heathcote, had the tastebuds doing the happy dance.
Dolci was a delightful combination of naughty and nice – some fresh local berries and nectarines, served with a canoli filled with local ricotta flavoured with limoncello (why not?) and a peach and nectarine gelato.
All the courses were spaced beautifully, leaving enough time between each for pause, reflection, conversation and digestion. The portions were perfect, the wines thoughtfully matched, and complimented nicely by some Sinatra swing, which had us all swaying and crooning (quite badly) by the end.
Whilst you can make a dinner booking without staying the night (the restaurant seats 22 comfortably), it’s hard to resist the allure of wandering down the hallway to your room to arise the next morning for breakfast at the very civilised hour of 9am to velvety poached pears, local yoghurt from the Myrtleford Dairy and freshly poached googs, with cherry tomatoes and asparagus picked from the garden, washed down with an espresso. La dolce vita indeed.