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To Melbourne with Love (and Italian Coffee)

The long lasting love story between Lygon Street in Carlton an Italy

by Kathryn Curto

Museo Italiano Melbourne.

From the 50s to today, Lygon Street in Carlton and Italians have been closely tied together. Melbourne’s Little Italy yielded to a beautifully constructed list of resources, places, events and people, but most importantly coffee and Brunetti’s, the best cafe in town.

The way to live, as some of us have been told and some of us know, is like the Italians.  Live in Italian, those smooth, glorious San Pellegrino ads filled with crisp images of cool people, cool breezes and tall glasses of cool sparkling water remind us. Who doesn’t want to be the people in those places, eating, drinking and loving the way they do?

For Melbournians, living in Italian is not just possible. It’s celebrated.

Welcome to Lygon Street in Carlton, the heart of Melbourne’s Italian district.

Paolo Baracchi, the Coordinator at Co.As.It. Italian Assistance Associations Melbourne.

Of course, since the subject is all that’s Italian, we know, naturally, there are festivals, films, food and fashion. Just ask Dr. Paolo Baracchi, Coordinator at Co.As.It. Italian Assistance Associations Melbourne. Established in 1967 in response to the migration of Italians settling in Australia from as early as the 1950s, the aim of the organization reads: “To provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Italian migrants and their descendants, to enable them to achieve their full potential in the wider Australian society.” One look at an image of Lygon Street today and it’s safe to say the Italians certainly achieved. And then some.

Dr. Baracchi himself is a wealth of knowledge and information. A few simple questions on Carlton’s influence on what some think of as Melbourne’s Little Italy, yielded a beautifully constructed list of resources, places, events and people ranging from collections of scholarly materials and oral histories to the busiest cafés in the neighborhood, from pertinent documentaries to local business leaders. The man knows the Italian experience in Carlton.

But this is about coffee. So thankfully, the opportunity to view one of those documentaries, “Lygon Street-Si Parla Italiano,” presented itself, which then allowed the chance to hear stories and see images of the early lives of Italian immigrants. These images included two figures who some regard as the legendary founding mother and father of Italian coffee culture on Lygon Street–Mamaa Varrenti and Agostino Monici.  One of the best scenes in the film is of Monici speaking in a 2005 interview about those first surges of coffee mania in Carlton, 1950s when the espresso machine made its debut: “Day and night coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!”  The film features tales of migrants creating the market for some of the earliest Italian shops, restaurants and cafés in this neighborhood including University Café, Café Sport, Mocopan, L’Alba Café, Varrenti’s, Donati’s Meats, La Gina’s Restaurant, Ciccio’s Espresso Bar, Grinders Coffee, Toto’s Pizza House and Lygon Food Store.

Fast forward over five decades with many shifts, waves and trends under the belt of this rich Melbournian enclave of Italian culture that is Lygon Street. The street is alive with fresh energy, but one that still honors the area’s history and its early settlers, residents and entrepreneurs. Now patrons of all ages visit the area and appreciate the cultural experience it still offers. An affinity for Italian-inspired art (music, dance, theatre and literature) and the architecture of old restored homes also pulls people in. People like Clementine and Jasmine, two students who live and study in Melbourne, and who love the vibe on Lygon. “Italian flavor and style is all along Lygon Street,” eighteen-year-old Clementine offers.  “There are many Italian restaurants, gelato shops and beautiful Victorian architecture lined with big green trees. To me, that defines this area as Italian. And all my Italian friends have a strong sense of family and belonging even if they are second or third generation in Australia.”  She and Dr. Baracchi both regard Brunetti’s as one of the most iconic places to grab a coffee on Lygon Street today. “The string of coffee shops there shows how much coffee is a central part of Carlton.  My favorite is Brunetti’s.” Jasmine goes a step further in her homage to Brunetti’s: “The best and only Italian café I go to is Brunetti. I drink coffee with soy milk and the Italian touch there makes such a difference; I always get a perfectly frothed and creamy soy milk coffee. It makes me happy.”

As for additional ways to celebrate Italian flavor in this lively part of town, after indulging in the perfect cup of coffee, of course, consider more of what was inside treasure chest of ideas from our sources: the annual Carlton Italian Festa, Multicultural Museums Cook Off, the Salumi Festa and the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.

It seems like the lovers of Lygon Street got the memo from San Pellegrino: Live in Italian.

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