After 38 years of service, there are just some things restaurateur Lucio Galletto cannot let go.

He is keeping only a few artworks from among his eminent collection, which will be auctioned in March.

But there are also the rituals dating back to his childhood.

Before the restaurant opens, he walks through his Paddington establishment with a hot pan wafting the scent of burnt garlic infused with oil.

“To keep evil spirits out of the restaurant,” Lucio explained.

“It’s very special.

“Also the aroma of the garlic, by the time people come in, it’s very inviting.”

Inside Lucio's Italian Restaurant
Two hundred of Lucio’s artworks will go to auction on March 21.(Supplied: Lucio’s)

A sell-out final night

Lucio’s Italian Restaurant will welcome its last customers on Saturday.

When the business announced the closing date in October, it was booked out within four hours.

The restaurant was established in Balmain in 1981 before moving to Paddington two years later.

Since then, the family-run business has hosted patrons from across the art world — John Olsen, Tim Storrier, Elisabeth Cummings, Michael Johnson, Salvatore Zofrea, Euan Macleod, Sidney Nolan and many more.

There have also been celebrities — Al Pacino, Italian singer Zucchero Fornaciari and the late George Harrison, with Lucio remembering offending his “hero” when he asked the Beatles star for an autograph.

Lucio and John Olsen at Lucio's Italian Restaurant in 2013.
Lucio with artist John Olsen who designed menus for the restaurant.(Supplied: Lucio’s)

It was Nolan’s sketch of Ned Kelly on the back of a docket that kick-started Lucio’s famous gallery of works that adorn the walls inside the restaurant, and the pavement and tree outside.

“He spent a fortune framing it in gold leaf, which I was furious about and I still am,” his wife, Sally Galleto, said.

To Lucio, the artists are “la famiglia” — family.

“I think they saw how I took care of [the Nolan sketch]. After that they came in and asked ‘can I hang my art on your wall?’

“And they say to me, ‘Artists might not like each other but they all like Lucio’s.'”

Lucio’s food, art and friendship auction

A total of 200 of Lucio’s artworks will be auctioned by Bonhams Australia on March 21 including paintings, sculptures and sketches some of which were drawn on menus and on the napery.

Garry Shead drawing on the kitchen door of Lucio's
Garry Shead was a regular at Lucio’s.(Instagram: luciospaddington)

A lucky buyer could also take home ‘The Sacred Fish’ by Imants Tillers, which comes with small flecks of tomato sauce, courtesy of the patrons who have sat at the table below the work since 2016.

Lucio assures us that the sauce can be wiped off the paint oils, otherwise, he joked, the buyer “can get an extra 10 per cent off!”.

Bonhams director Merryn Schriever said the collection was a snapshot of the Australian art world from the 1980s.

“The range of works is extraordinary,” Ms Schriever said.

“Many of the works are about specific experiences and special events such as the Garry Shead works that are all about banquets and feasts and feature both Garry and Lucio.”

It is expected the collection will total somewhere between $700,000 and $1,000,000, she said.

Of all artworks hanging around the walls, there are only a few Lucio is keeping for himself.

Lucio looking at Colin Lanceley's artwork Blue Swimmer Crab in his restaurant
One of Lucio’s favourites — Colin Lanceley was inspired by the restaurant’s blue swimmer crab green noodle dish.(ABC Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

Colin Lanceley’s Blue Swimmer Crab — a mixed media work that paid homage to the restaurant’s pasta dish, tagliolini alla granseola, is one of Lucio’s favourites.

“I couldn’t sell it, it’s too special for me, so I’m going to keep it in my home when we close,” Lucio said.

He would also love to keep Fred Cress’ painting, titled Lucio’s Food, featuring the hands of artists sharing a feast, but he thinks it might “be too big” for the apartment he lives in.


‘He loves the people’

Lucio was raised in the world of restaurants and art.

His family owned a restaurant in the small Italian seaside town in the province of Liguria and his cousin also runs a restaurant and an art gallery.

“It was like I was born in a restaurant,” Lucio said.

“We had our little corner in the restaurant where we did our homework, watched television.”

It was there he met his wife Sally, who was visiting her sister, who is married to Lucio’s cousin.

“We went to Paris to see if we were compatible to get married,” Lucio said with a laugh.

“We were fighting everyday so we said ‘yes, we are ready to get married!'”

Galletto family at Lucio's
The restaurateur couple’s Matteo and Michela Galletto trained at Lucio’s.(Supplied: Lucio’s)

Lucio’s first job in Sydney in 1977 was at Natalino’s Restaurant in Kings Cross.

While he loves food and loves to cook (although “he makes a mess” according to Sally), it was the front-of-house duties that kept Lucio in the business.

“His forte is with the people,” Sally said.

“He loves talking to people, making people happy.”

Sally joined the business in 1997 after a career in advertising, while their two children Matteo and Michela trained in hospitality and now also work for the restaurant.

‘We follow the season’

Lucio’s has only had five head chefs in its lifetime, and most trained the apprentices that then took over the role.

George Kohler has been the restaurant’s head chef for the past three years, and was trained by his predecessor Logan Campbell, who was in Lucio’s kitchen for 12 years.

The slow turnover of staff meant the style of the food hardly changed and reflected Lucio’s motto: “We follow the season, not the fashion”.

Staff work in Lucio's kitchen
The kitchen staff ‘work miracles’ in the small space they have, Lucio says.(ABC Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

“There’s a dish currently on the menu — burrata with tomato,” Mr Kohler told ABC Sydney.

“We use basil and I’ve made that into a gel and we inject that into the burrata to create a wow factor.

“[The kitchen] It’s like a shoebox.

“But for a two-hatted establishment … it’s amazing the food we can produce and get out to the customers at such a high standard.”

Till the next venture

Lucio’s may be closing but it is in no way a mark of retirement for the Galletto family.

Their next venture, while not yet confirmed, will be spearheaded by Matteo and Michela.

Fred Cress' Lucio's Food painting hanging in Lucio's
Fred Cress’ artwork titled Lucio’s Food, like all the artworks Lucio has received comes with a personal story.(ABC Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

“Hopefully we’ll do something else with our children but it will be something they feel about it, cause [Lucio’s] was Sally and I,” Lucio said.

“What I will miss, and I hope not for long because I hope to do something else, is that I will miss people.

“I will miss my staff, miss watching the food being prepared, the organisation of the kitchen, the team in the kitchen working so well together, but definitely the dining room.

“The dining room is where I feel at home — making sure that people are having a good time.