Suburban Secrets: Minestra

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, July 2019

Precise definitions vary from one region to the next, but in any corner of the Mediterranean ‘minestra’ means simple, hearty food. In suburban Prospect, however, it’s also come to stand for a community institution.

“I always had in my mind those little, European, just-out-of-town tavernas,” owner Sandy Cenin tells The Adelaide Review. “Places where you walk in and there are three things on offer and you know it’s all been cooked that day, is locally sourced and there’s not really much choice – but you know it’s going to be essentially home-cooked food.”

Having spent time as a chef, teacher and frontman of Adelaide rock survivors Avant Gardeners, Cenin set out to create this humble oasis on busy Churchill Road in 2013. From the beginning his southern Italian heritage has been central to the ever-changing menu, with its namesake dish one of a few constants.

“My grandmother was from Calabria,” he says. “Typical Calabrian story, from a very poor farming village family where a lot of what they ate was picked or gleaned. Cannellini beans were a staple; very little meat, very little dairy, always used sparingly and carefully for flavour. The essentials were garlic and olive oil – we had a family dish, which was a very common peasant dish in the south, minestra fagioli, which is just ‘greens and beans’ basically, cooked with garlic and olive oil.”

That signature mix of spinach, cannellini beans and whatever is in season can be found alongside other southern Italian staples like pasta e fagioli or polpette – rissoles of meat, potato and eggplant served with the essential side of chilli oil diners can drizzle to their own taste (waiting staff will cheerfully report the intensity of the week’s chilli like it’s the weather). For more standard breakfast and lunch fare, toasties with pancetta, peperonata or ‘nduja, a Calabrese pork spread, are also regulars on the blackboard.

From the start, Cenin has enlisted neighbourhood green thumbs to provide the fresh backyard produce that underpins much of the menu. “It was a realisation that a lot of people in the inner ‘burbs are putting their back gardens to use, and knowing from my own experience there’s always leftovers, there’s always surplus, and you’re never quite sure what to do with it unless you’re keyed into a community gardening network. So I thought yeah, I’ll get people to bring in their fruit and veg. That’ll keep life exciting for me, I’ll have different choices for my daily menu, it’ll ensure that stuff is seasonal and it’ll be reducing waste.”

A novel idea when Minestra launched, this unconventional supply chain has proved to be the soul of the place. “I’ve got some nonnas, I’ve got some young families, parents with a veggie patch out the back who find they have too many leeks, or people who bought a place with an incredible lemon tree and don’t know what to do with them. All kinds of people – I have some people who bring in the same posy of herbs week after week, and I can rely on that.

“I told my grandmother I was going to put minestra on the menu, and she said, ‘Who’s going to want that garbage?’” Cenin says of Minestra’s early days. “She always used to make it, but it’s food that reminded her of her poverty. But it’s just what everybody wants now because it’s wholesome, it’s fresh, it’s full of those superfood-y, dark, bitter, leafy greens – I have people coming in four times a week for minestra.

“I always think of ‘minestra’, in any kind of culture, is the thing you put on the table when you’ve got nothing else,” he explains. After a couple of visits, one might begin to wonder what else you could possibly need.