Monica and Jacinta Cannataci
FACE2FACE: A twin success!

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Monica and Jacinta Cannataci share an unusual success story – they’re twin sisters who have almost always worked together in foodservice, across a range of fine dining establishments. Currently Jacinta is Head of Catering and Monica Head Pastry Chef at Hugo’s, a landmark restaurant in the heart of Sydney’s tourist strip at Kings Cross.
Both sisters were inspired by their father’s passion for cooking. “Our dad did all the cooking in the house,” Monica recalls, “and at the age of five or six we were already helping him prepare – he’d get the family together and cook up a big feast.”
By the age of 12, Monica and Jacinta were both working in a bread shop, learning how to bake – they spent time there on weekends and after school, preparing for the next morning’s baking. When they were 14 they started working at a local café, and after completing their school certificates, commenced their apprenticeships at 16 at the Quay restaurant in Sydney’s Circular Quay, under Philip Leblanc and later Peter Gilmore.
After a year and a half as apprentice pastry chefs, both decided to expand their expertise by spending a year and a half at the famous Bennelong restaurant at Sydney Opera House. By this stage Monica had recognised that pastry was her true passion. Jacinta, meanwhile, had moved into hot sauces for savoury items and won the Quay restaurant’s apprenticeship award.
After a two and a half year stint at Wildfire, during which the sisters worked there way up to commis and then demi chefs, both took their current positions at Hugo’s, where they have remained for past eight years. The only time they worked apart was a brief stint that Jacinta spent at The Ocean Room for one year, studying Japanese cookery.
“We’ve always worked together, and in fact we do work side by side,” Jacinta affirms, pointing out that Monica works on catering functions with her at Hugo’s – both are present at much of Hugo’s function catering, and have won state and national awards for their catering work.
“We work well together – we know what each other’s thinking, so whenever there’s a big job we can get in there. Also clients quite enjoy seeing how we relate to each other and often they’ll want both of us together,” Monica explains.
Hugo’s has built an enviable reputation for its extensive selection of pizzas, but in fact offers a broad range of Italian cuisine and is currently moving into offering street food. Its sister restaurant, Mary’s, opened at Manly four years ago and Jacinta and Monica are across both operations.
Monica acknowledges, though, that the pizzas are what Hugo’s is best known for. “Every year we seem to win an award, and we’re always coming up with new ideas for toppings – we always retain the same pizza base because it’s special and distinctive, and part of what makes our pizzas unique. It’s nice and thin and crispy and our philosophy is always not to overwhelm or overcomplicate flavours – less is more,” she explains.
The pizza market has changed a lot in recent years – “there’s a lot more competition,” Monica acknowledges. “Our style of pizzas was very new when we opened. We use lots of very ingredients, not watery, high quality – that’s what people love. Ingredients like salami and pepperoni are specially made by our suppliers, which makes all the difference.
“We’re always trying to keep up with new pizza trends – like the current move to creating a beautiful entrée or main course dish, but adapting it onto a pizza base. Of course, once you get known for these ideas others start to copy and that’s what’s happened to us.”
As a result, Hugo’s is expanding into other types of food – including ‘middle of the table’ selections of rustic Italian cuisine, and desserts with plenty of ‘wow factor’ – to create a distinctively memorable dining experience.
As a result, Monica has stepped away from the pizza side somewhat but emphasises “We focus on keeping the menu seasonal, while retaining our most popular mains – but we’re still innovating. Jacinta, myself and the Head Chef Maximilian all contribute ideas.”
Due to its location in the heart of Sydney’s Kings Cross, Hugo’s is open long hours especially going into the weekend. “By the end of the week we open at five and stop serving at midnight, but the pizzas keep going until 1am,” Monica explains.
She and Jacinta both love what they do – and are constantly staying on their toes by challenging themselves. Monica’s latest passion is desserts – “I’m trying to deconstruct them, make them simple. At the moment we have a rhubarb and quince crumble on the menu – I’m serving it in a jar with an orange blossom custard on the bottom, then the quince, then the crumble, all layered with ice cream rolled around in caramelized almonds – it’s basically a dessert in a jam jar, served on a long wooden chopping board!”
Jacinta adds that it’s important to always “keep up with new ideas – be different – and keep ahead of what others are doing.” Her work on the business’ catering side currently takes her off the premises around twice a week – but during summertime demand is much stronger, with around five functions a week – “it does get busy and we have to make sure we don’t double or even triple book,” Jacinta acknowledges. “We do a lot of high end private parties and corporate events – boardroom lunches and event catering for PR launches and so on.
“In the next few weeks there’s a major part who want a childhood theme and we have to come up with that – it’s a question of working out what best suits the event,” she explains. “So it’s always different – we don’t stick to the same menu all the time either, it depends on the event theme. The client will come in, we’ll give them tastings and they’ll decide on what they want.”
Having always worked together, both sisters recognise they constitute a strong team. “I couldn’t work without her,” Monica says, and Jacinta feels the same way.
Nevertheless, both have kept evolving their styles and approaches – and Monica is now starting to work on cakes. In the future, both sisters can see themselves opening their own patisserie/café, “with nice savoury lunch meals and cakes,” Monica says.
In the meantime, they’re receiving lots of kudos for their expertise – last year they travelled to Las Vegas to compete on the international stage against 16 other contestants from around the world, winning third place at the World Pizza Challenge. Their recipe of wagyu bresaola, tomato chutney, goat’s curd mousse, baby beetroot, horseradish, pecorino cheese, watercress, micro herbs and lemon oil on pizza was developed by Jacinta.
More recently, Monica won the ‘Best Use of a Nutella in a Dessert Pizza’ category at the 2012 Fonterra Global Pizza Challenge Australian finals for her Chocolate and Hazelnut Pizza with Banana Honey Ricotta and Vanilla Bean Gelato, which has long been a big-seller on the Hugo’s dessert menu. And in 2013, Monica will be part of the Australian team heading to Italy for the World Pizza Challenge.
But whatever the future holds, one thing seems certain – Monica and Jacinta will keep working side by side, each inspiring the other. Clearly they’re a team to be reckoned with!