An Italian feast for the eyes

The European Hotel in St Kilda has had the ultimate of make-overs, with Melbourne restaurateur and entrepreneur Mario Di Nardo engaging award-winning interior designer director Alex Zabotto-Bentley of AZBcreative to do the honours

Interiors by Alex Zabotto-Bentley of AZBcreative

From the designer:

The iconic and historic 1854 Melbourne landmark The European Hotel in St Kilda has had the ultimate of make-overs, with famed Melbourne restaurateur and entrepreneur Mario Di Nardo engaging award winning interior designer director Alex Zabotto-Bentley of AZBcreative to undertake the comprehensive makeover.

The results are breathtaking, including the four ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s’ in the Rafael’s casual dining restaurant. 

In The European Hotel and each of its three impressive dining areas, Zabotto-Bentley’s layered, detailed approach to design is apparent in every corner, says Di Nardo.

Zabotto-Bentley was inspired by the authentic Italian cuisine within and the history of the site, when inspiration came by way of moody, ambient private spaces, and rustic walls coming to life with spectacular and colourful pop art – 4 limited edition screen prints of Neo Expressionist artist Shane Bowden’s modern interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with wild overprinting and potent colours. 

The end result mixes drama, detail, the balance between mood and eccentricity, as well as modernity mixed with classical, something Zabotto-Bentley said suited the space and Di Nardo’s brief perfectly.

“This is inherently how I design – by reading the space and its purpose – and Di Nardo was a perfect bouncing board, giving me incredible reign and support for my vision for his very special hotel.”

The European

Design statement 

The European and all the respective environments within –  from Rafaels, Crudino, and Privato to The Melbourne room – were an exercise in creating spaces that spoke to the Italian heritage of both Di Nardo and to design director Alex Zabotto-Bentley.

Both Di Nardo and Zabotto-Bentley have a great love of classic Italian design, hospitality and of course Italian food.

Alex Zabotto-Bentley was tasked to create decorative and artful layers; a narrative throughout every space of The European that spoke of elegance and luxury – which is his signature style.

Taking the physical design that was created by Di Nardo, the interior designer transformed multiple interior spaces into a narrative of fine taste and beautiful detail.

Di Nardo and Zabotto-Bentley forged a unique relationship because at their foundation they both have Italian blood pumping through their veins.

The designer says: “We have discerning, and very particular points of view and we really resonate with each other.”

Zabotto-Bentley tapped into his love of drama, detail, the balance between mood and eccentricity, modernity mixed with classical.

“It is inherently to how I design, and Di Nardo was a perfect bouncing board, giving me incredible reign and support for my vision for his very special hotel.”

Reimagining this iconic site was exciting for Alex Zabotto-Bentley as he wanted to imbue an aesthetic and personality and introduce key stand out elements.

In every space there are iconic Italian elements but these are treated differently in respect to each environment.

The look is elegant Italian with a lyrical and intelligent twist.

“I love introducing never before seen elements or entirely custom elements, such as art, décor, fabrics, furniture within my interiors to really creating a talking point for patrons,” says c. “People really notice these unique elements and they become iconic to the spaces I design.”


Rafaels is a casual fun environment and the designer wanted it to feel like a cool Italian apartment – filled with exciting art and amazing plants in beautiful vessels.

The art needed to be contemporary with an absolute nod to Italian history, and the designer wanted something really overt and wonderful with the art selection for this public space.

He engaged amazing artist Shane Bowden to provide his modern interpretation of the Mona Lisa in 4 limited edition screen prints with wild over printing and potent colours.

Rafaels is populated with many hand-blown barnacle ceramics filled with unusual and unique curated indoor plants.

It is an elegant greenhouse but one that will lead everyone to say – what the hell is the plant?

The Melbourne Room

The Melbourne Room is a theatrical environment with multiple black drapes as a backdrop, feature large modern art pieces, fantastic combinations of furniture and a wall of custom wallpaper from the iconic Italian brand Fornasetti leading into the private dining rooms.

In fact, the Fornasetti wallpaper is featured in many secret areas throughout the venue in various scales.

Slap bang in the middle of the Melbourne Room, Zabotto-Bentley designed a large communal lounge area to reflect the subdued tone of a private Italian airport lounge from the 70s.

To this end, he curated low modernist seating from salon chairs with lower backs to ottomans, upholstered in mint and antique rose.

All the furniture was arranged in such a way to create a lounge that punctuates the space in a non-traditional manner.

All surrounded by sheer drapes to add to the mystery of the room.

The use of vegan leather, sueded cloth, and thick yarn dyed textiles offset the existing leather banquettes provide a tactile experience to the lounge.

In the darkened alcove, the designer chose black on black to offset the dark velvet curtains and a back drop of lush green planting.

Australian-designed high back chairs are mixed with black marble and custom sofas and armchairs upholstered in cut velvet in darkened hues of green and charcoal.

This elegant interior design is the perfect environment for patrons to hideaway in smaller groups away from the bustling bar.


Crudino was detailed to feel like a luxe Italian kitchen with a private dining room – Privato – presided over by exquisite Roman bronze busts from Graham Geddes, multiple Moroccan pots clustered together and beautiful Italian ceramics.

Zabotto-Bentley has loved his time designing and curating for The European.

“It has been a joy to finely select every minute detail to enrich the Italian soul of this wonderful location, The European,” he says.

Designed by: Alex Zabotto-Bentley of AZBcreative

Story by: Trendsideas

Photography by: Griffin Simm

20 Feb, 2022

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