Long live Pellegrini’s

Sisto Malaspina is dead. Long live Pellegrini’s.

There has been an outpouring of grief in Melbourne, with many tributes and shared memories, none better I think than Arnold Zable’s “I am weeping”.

There’s lots more to be said. Many more stories to tell. And they will be told. They must, be told. But for now, we weep. And we smile. Ciao Sisto! Grazie por tutti!

I spoke to Sisto nearly twenty years ago during research for Espresso! Melbourne Coffee Stories, when we were trying to work out where the café’s original four-group coffee machine might have ended up.

The pre-war espresso machines — that is, in the era before Milan bar-owner Achille Gaggia patented the first steamless coffee machine  — were often fantastical pieces of construction. The Florentino restaurant is credited with having had one of Melbourne’s earliest espresso-style machines. Leon Pellegrini remembered it as being a monolithic piece of equipment which greeted patrons at the top of the stairs.

Peter Bancroft secured the agency for importing Gaggia machines into Australia in the early 1950s, and his first customers had been the University Café’s Gianni Milani, and brothers Leon and Vildo Pellegrini, former waiters at the Florentino. Bancroft opened up Melbourne’s first espresso café, Il Capuccino (yes that’s right, misspelt) in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda on 1 May 1954.

Luigi ‘Gino’ Di Santo arrived Melbourne in 1952, and soon noted the popularity of espresso machines in the shipboard bars with the customs and immigration officers. Di Santo headed to the Milan Fair to look for a machine. Unable to afford the airfare, he left by sea a fortnight after his marriage in January 1954. Arriving at the Fair in April, he went straight to the Gaggia stand, only to find that the Gaggia agency had recently been given to the Bancrofts. But the La Cimbali agency was available, so Di Santo teamed up with Russell & Armstrong of 414 Collins Street, who had an import licence, and became the La Cimbali sales and marketing representative in November 1954.

The first single-group La Cimbali was placed in the Café Lexington at 185 Exhibition Street (near His Majesty’s Theatre and opposite Mario’s restaurant), where curious patrons initially wondered whether it was a new type of cash register. It was here that Di Santo demonstrated the new machine to the Pellegrinis, just before they opened their own café.

After migrating to Sydney in 1934, the Pellegrini brothers had moved with their parents to Melbourne in 1939. When still at school Leon had worked as a coffee boy at the Florentino in the evenings, and after the war he ran successive cafés in Healesville (attracting custom during construction of the Eildon Weir) and Bank Place in the city, before returning to the Florentino for a couple of years as head waiter.

The Pellegrini brothers renovated a former tailor’s shop at 66 Bourke Street late in 1954. A building application lodged with the Melbourne City Council on 1 October 1954 showed the Pellegrini’s modernised shopfront. Inside, the café featured a Pyrok vermiculite ceiling, chequered floor tiles, mirror walls, column-support bar stools, and dotted on the plan was a space on the curved bar for the mysterious espresso machine.

Pellegrini’s was an immediate hit not only with Italians, but also with taxi drivers, theatre goers, medical professionals from Collins Street, and patrons of the nearby Hill of Content bookshop.

When tailor Harry Davis retired and freed up space in the rear of the building, the Pellegrinis knocked down walls, extended the front bar, and utilised the upstairs as a change room. An Italian pastry cook prepared all kinds of Italian, French and Hungarian cakes, pizza made an early entry on the menu, and an imported gelati machine was one of Melbourne’s first.

In 1958, at the opening of the extension to the rear, thousands of people were treated to a seven-foot high gateau in the shape of a log. A ribbon cut by the Lord Mayor’s son released some finches from a concealed cage at the top of the cake. Beginning with a staff of three or four, Pellegrini’s had around fifty on the payroll by the end of the decade. The brothers retired from the business in 1974.

Pellegrini’s early popularity inspired Ion Nicolades to convert his family’s Anglo American café at 239 Bourke Street, next to the Tivoli Theatre, into the Legend Espresso & Milk Bar. The Legend opened just prior to the 1956 Olympics, and its open front to Bourke Street attracted the theatre crowds from the Tivoli, Hoyt’s Deluxe and the Lyceum.

City health inspectors calling in at Pellegrini’s in the early days were uncertain as to whether the operators of the new espresso machines needed a boilermaker’s certificate to use them. Though no such qualification was required, Pellegrini’s waiters could well be exhausted after hours on the levers, and those with slippery wet hands sported a few scars under the chin where rogue levers had recoiled. Mirka Mora recalls letting go of a handle in her café and suffering a nasty blow. Orthopaedic surgeons in London soon pronounced on the inflamed tendons and repetitive strain of ‘espresso wrist’, caused by making several strong turning movements of the hand for each cup.

Sisto was killed on 9 November — “Something in the essence of the city died with him”— but you can hear his voice again in an ABC interview just aired on RN’s Blueprint for Living.


Vale Sisto.


Image credit: Pellegrini’s Bar, 66 Bourke Street 1970 (Rennie Ellis, photographer), State Library of Victoria.

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