Bryn Cymro

Words and images from home and away

Espresso dreaming

Every day for a decade and a half now on the way to and from work I drive down Princes Street in Carlton, tracking the snail trail of peak hour traffic past the florist on the corner of Canning Street, diagonally opposite the Dan O’Connell Hotel.

I can’t say I’m a Carltonite, but I love these streets. Like so many other middle-class Anglo-Celtic Melburnians, it was here that I first sensed another world beyond the leafy reaches of outer-eastern Blackburn where I was brought up in more mono-cultural isolation. I first knew Carlton in the 1970s when my father would periodically take us into Mary Martins bookshop in the city, always stopping en route for a gelati at Genevieve’s in Faraday Street. So this was the same ‘“something different” towards which we are all forever striving’ that English writer and traveller Elinor Mordaunt (writing as E.M. Clowes in 1911 in On the wallaby through Victoria) spoke of over half a century before, as she turned from the ‘dreary drabness’ of Melbourne’s central streets to the byways of Little Bourke.

In 1982 I was an émigré of other sorts, a uni student desperate to move out of home with my girlfriend and in to the allure of the inner city. The reality was Spartan, a crappy kind of bedsit in Neill Street, which runs on the diagonal from Rathdowne down to the Dan O’Connell. I mostly remember the garish lino and wallpaper in both of its freezing rooms, faux walnut furniture, and a shared bathroom at the top which was slowly but surely falling through the ceiling of the stairwell. For a hundred and fifty dollars rent a month we couldn’t really complain, though we couldn’t really afford to do much else. But now for a time at least I could call Carlton a kind of home, and came to know its streets.

Why am I reminded of all this? Last week Ric Volpi emailed me some family photos and reminiscences. In 2010 I had been approached by the ABC TV show “Can we help?” to comment on a listener question from Ric — ‘Was my grandmother the first person to bring an espresso machine to Australia’? The segment aired in November, filmed inside Domenic Zampogna’s Sila Espresso Bar in Brunswick Street with its 1950s Faema gleaming on the counter and still serving coffee with that revolutionary espresso crema. While it was clear that the machine Ric’s grandmother Margarita (Rita) Zulian had brought to Melbourne was an early one, it was then hard to determine where it fitted into any precise chronology.

Milk Bar, corner of Canning Street and Princes Street, Carlton, c. 1955 [Ric Volpi]

Corner of Canning Street and Princes Street Carlton [Google Street View, April 2013]

Ric sent me a copy of a postcard dated 17 July 1954 sent back by his grandmother from Venice. A native of Cittadella, she was in Italy visiting friends and family, and it was on her return that she brought back a two-group Gaggia in her luggage. There’s a wonderful photograph of Ric’s mother on a scooter outside the shop, and of the actual machine with Ric’s mum behind the counter. You can see the Venetian gondola painted on the wall—the shop catered to hundreds of Italian migrants in Carlton, and like other Italian cafes in the suburb through the 1950s and 1960s it not only sold continental food but acted as a mini consulate, helping lonely migrants write letters, translate documents, and to access information about jobs and services. There were deck chairs set out on the grassy median strip in Canning Street to accommodate all the visitors to the cafe.

Interior of Espresso Bar, corner of Canning Street and Princes Street, Carlton, c. 1955.

Interior of Espresso Bar, corner of Canning Street and Princes Street, Carlton, c. 1955.

Ric’s nonna’s maiden name was Ferronato, he tells me, which means ‘born of iron’:

my grandmother also confronted the council, tears in her eyes telling them they would not tear down her shop to make commission homes … A sophisticated woman from the Venice region, married & brought to Proserpine, far north QLD to a sugar cane farm with floods, heat & racism against them. With 4 [Italian speaking but Australian-born] daughters & no sons they moved family to Melbourne & set up in the family shop living upstairs …

Varrenti's Elgin Street cafe, June 1954 [Italian Historical Society]

Varrenti’s Elgin Street cafe, June 1954 [Italian Historical Society]

In the years since I wrote Espresso! Melbourne Coffee Stories (2001), I have periodically been contacted by other people like Ric, relatives of Melbourne’s Italian cafe pioneers who are proud to locate their family stories within the broader sweep of Melbourne’s history . In 2012 I had an email from Sandro Brunelli who was trying to find a copy of Espresso. His father Carlo had passed away, and the family was looking for some information on his role in Melbourne’s café and restaurant history—he built and ran Campari Bistro Café in Hardware Street from 1968 to 1999. I was able to give them a copy of the book as well as a tape of the interview I had recorded with Carlo in 1999. Sandro emailed me two days later — ‘you made my day … my mum Ada was in tears when listening to the cd interview with my dad’.

Carlo was a native of Verona and having arrived in Australia in 1952 with a background in engineering, designed and outfitted many of Melbourne’s cake shops, pizza houses, restaurants, cafés and coffee houses including Campari Bistro, Pellegrinis, Tamani Bistro, Grinders, Via Veneto Restaurant, and the Coffex shop and factory. Brunelli settled first in Geelong, where he worked for the Ford Motor Company and at the Shell Refinery — you can see him c.1953 in a photo via Trove. In 1956 he was involved in the manufacture of ‘Surefast’ electric ovens for baking Continental-style bread.

A year or two earlier he had visited the Bancrofts in Melbourne and purchased a Gaggia machine, which he put into Carlo & Frank’s ABC Espresso Bar in Moorabool Street. He later opened La Spiaggia café in Lorne. Brunelli was a novice in the café business, and had initially learned the fundamentals of the espresso craft by simply spending a few hours in observation at the counter of Pellegini’s. Coffee gave him a livelihood, but also a family.

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It was the Bancroft family who had first distributed Gaggia machines in Australia, and to whom credit goes for opening the first espresso bar in Melbourne—Il Capuccino [sic] in St Kilda opened its doors on 1 May 1954. When Carlo Brunelli turned up at the Bancroft’s agency office in Ripponlea he also took a fancy to the blond girl making the coffee. He asked her for her telephone number, and eventually married her.

Paper Bag, Mocopan Selected Blend Coffee [Museum Victoria]

Paper Bag, Mocopan Selected Blend Coffee [Museum Victoria]

Many of these original cafe owners or espresso afficionados are now no longer with us, and I was lucky that in the late 1990s I was able to speak with a handful of the immediate postwar migrant generation including Luigi ‘Gino’ di Santo, Carlo Brunelli, and Agostino Monici (one of the founders of Mocopan). I opened my book with a description of Henry Rogers, an early espresso machine technician who passed away in September 2004. His family asked me if they could quote from the book at Henry’s funeral.

Collectors too often email me with queries or fill me in on their favourite machines: Dean Sunshine told me in 2007 how he had swapped his Gaggia for 2 sputniks.

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My interest in all this was originally piqued when I was doing an oral history project at uni in 1985. Preston resident Jean James mentioned to me in passing that she had ‘the first espresso coffee machine this side of St Kilda’ in her tea-rooms on Plenty Road. About three or four years after our conversation I put a little advertisement in the Age, following up on that tantalising claim, and seeking information on Melbourne’s first espresso machines. Half a dozen or so letters of response gave me further clues as to the local origins of that most alluring piece of machinery, which was in the vanguard of social, stylistic and culinary change in the 1950s, as well as the names that would eventually become synonymous with these developments — Bancroft, Varrenti, Monici, Crivelli and many others. What started as a madcap exercise tracking down serial numbers to find the true chronology of espresso machines has over the years turned into something much more interesting. 

Just a week after the planes flew into the twin towers in September 2001, a crowd gathered at Melbourne Museum for the launch of my book as well as a concurrent exhibition of some of Melbourne’s iconic coffee machines and paraphernalia organised by Eddie Butler-Bowdon and Richard Gillespie. I remember how numb we felt at the time, and how insignificant the event seemed in the context of the horror that surrounded us. But celebrating the history of the humble cup of coffee and the community that worked hard to establish the hospitable surroundings of the café still seemed like an important thing to do.

As Ric Volpi says—

they were truly part of the cultural change. Sailing around the world looking for work, building some railway here & buying a sugar cane farm with some other italians, 4 girls riding miles to school everyday, floods & heat, my 1st aunty on being born carried around the hospital by nurses in amazement that she was white skinned & blue eyed (they thought the tanned Italian skin was like that of the black “kanakas”) … my mum as a 3 year old getting her hand crushed in farm machinery & her remembering trying to wipe the blood off onto her dress so she wouldn’t get in trouble, having to get the jinker ready to go to the township hospital & having to go around other farms & not thru them for the racism


2 comments on “Espresso dreaming

  1. araneus1
    June 8, 2014

    loved reading that….. my grandparents came to Australia around 1911……. so I grew up around all this.

  2. Ric Volpi
    July 27, 2015

    Hey I didnt know I had been quoted in this piece ! I now have a 1960 Gaggia “Tipo America” with the Bancroft sticker on it – serial no. 634 – you have any idea where it originally started life ? cheers – Ric Volpi

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This entry was posted on June 8, 2014 by in Home and tagged , , , .
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