Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
The origins of Australia's Little Italy
Update: Lygon Street: Si Parla Italiano will be opening in Sydney exclusively at Dendy on Feb 13 with a special Gala Event on Feb 12, 6.45pm at Dendy Newtown, Hobart on Feb 16 and 17 on, and in Perth at Cinema Paradiso on March 6. Please see the film's Facebook page for further release dates and information.
It's easy to dismiss Lygon Street in Carlton as merely a present day tourist trap, but the affectionate tribute Si Parla Italiano makes it clear that the iconic 'Little Italy' of Melbourne has had a surprisingly big impact on the eating habits of Australians.
Giorgio Angele came to Australia as a pastry chef for the 1956 Olympic Games. He loved Lygon Street so much he decided to stay and open a small cake shop called Brunetti. He also showed the locals how to wear a string shirt.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pricolo and Swan's doco is how many firsts Lygon Street can lay claim to. For example, the first espresso machine to arrive in Australia was set up and put to use in Lygon Street, thus planting the beans of one of the great coffee cultures in the world. I, for one, am forever grateful for this. The first pizza house in the country, Toto's, still proudly stands near the bottom of Lygon, and it's there the holy union of pineapple and yeast came together to form the Aussie pizza. Another institution, the University Hotel, was the first restaurant in the country to have an outdoor license, introducing al fresco dining to Australians. And the Lygon Street festa was the first ever street party in Australia.
It's the 1950's, and Anthony LaPaglia's voice charts the history of the Italian diaspora to Carlton, detailing how their passion for food led to what is now the most famous dining strip in the land. In the present day, Pricolo and Swan assemble these culinary pioneers for a drink and a chat about those formative years. It's a clever device that puts a human face to the collection of bars, restaurants and specialty food stores that have become institutions.
Defying racism and the threat of urban redevelopment, these purveyors of all things deliciously Italian came together as a tight community and thrived to such an extent that they ultimately changed the way white Australians eat. Slowly but surely pasta, pizza, exotic cheeses and cured meats became a part of our diets, along with having a glass of wine with dinner and drinking coffee that didn't come out of a tin.
It's an impressive legacy, and despite some not so glorious days when commercialism threatened to take over, this true life story ends on a high, bringing into focus a new generation of Italian immigrants who are rejuvenating the area with such buzzy establishments as D.O.C.
Another first, Lygon Street is the first place in Australia where a McDonalds closed down!
A strapping, young Leo Donati (left) in his butcher shop Donati's Fine Meats. The shop's still there and Leo still looks strapping.
It's only fitting that this homage to Lygon St premiered at Cinema Nova.. Sitting in a cinema with a bunch of locals who share their history with what's on the screen, and audibly appreciating it, is way better than waiting til ths comes out on TV.