spaghetti mafiaA history of Italian restaurants in Melbourne commencing with Cafe d'Italia (later The Latin), The Society, Florentino's, Molinas and Marios, and how they became known as the spaghetti mafia.
The Italian Restaurant families
The way we eat in Australia this century has a lot to do with the Italian restaurant families, particularly the ones who opened their doors prior to the 2nd World War. There are some terrific Italian cooks who arrived later but those early 20th Century arrivals really made their mark in showing Australians about the pleasures of life at and beyond the table - through food, wine, conversation, art and music.
Most of them came from the north of Italy and many were political refugees. My grandparents, the Viganos, were forced to leave their home and properties in Milano after a murder attempt was made on Mario Vigano's life by Fascist thugs. He was a vocal opponent of Mussolini.
Like many of those families described here, the Viganos brought with them an understanding and love not just of food and wine but of a way of living which was completely different to that of the mainly Anglo Celtic population amongst whom they were to make their lives .
By the 1930s their presence in Melbourne at the top end of the city in and around Bourke, Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets, had become very strong. The restaurants these families started - Cafe d'Italia (later The Latin), The Society, Florentino's, Molinas and, my family's Marios, attracted first the bohemians - the artists and thespians, and the politicians. Students who were later to become powerful members of society had their first spaghetti at one of those establishments.
By the 50s it was the next generation, the sons of the founders, that were running these places. Some of them went to the same schools, they worked and played together and as they matured, talked business together. Later, they started to meet for regular lunches and became known as the spaghetti mafia. They would help each other in making sense of Anglo Saxon society and particularly its strange liquor laws. They each found a way of providing wine with food despite the restrictions of 6 o clock closing and of dining rooms only being licensed until 8pm. My mother, Maria O'Donnell (nee Vigano) recalls applying regularly for special occasion permits - which would allow liquor to be served till 10pm and then only to the special party. My grandfather, Mario, who had studied law in Italy, would go along to the licensing court and regularly do battle for change. And, like his fellow Italian caf proprietors he would find other means of circumventing the law. They won eventually and subsequent changes to the state laws have resulted in Victoria having the most flexible and civilised licencing in the country.
And some thirty years later, when operating our restaurant, Miettas in Alfred Place in the city (a short distance from where Marios once was) the changes resulting from the 1986 Nieuenhuysen Report made possible the operation of The Lounge and Bar business there as well as the restaurant.
However, the reasons for starting a restaurant in North Fitzroy in 1974 and now writing this book, a quarter of a century later, are about a fascination with food and entertaining which came from my grandparents. They gave me a glimpse of the sort of pleasure which can be given to people by true hospitality - that is, when you give of yourself, of what you like, you enjoy and what you like to surround yourself with. If that is, - as it was in my grandparents's case - art and music as well as fine food and wine; then youve got it made.
It is to them that I owe my career as a restaurateur which, unlike theirs, only lasted 22 years. They operated Marios for more than 30 years. Whilst I and my partner Tony Knox closed Miettas in the city at the beginning of 1996, my sister, Patricia O'Donnell, continues to run Miettas Queenscliff Hotel and more recently, the North Fitzroy Star.
Since closing the restaurant in the city, I've been exploring the maze of Italian family stories and connections in researching my own familys history and that of their peers - the Codognottos, Massonis, Molinas, Triacas and Virgonas.
Some great characters, some fascinating history about Melbourne, Australia, about liquor laws, and some wonderful old photos. And, with some effort and persuasion, some terrific and useful recipes and secrets that make Italian cooking in Australia possible for us all.
But the bulk of the recipes in this book come from Silvana Palmira, originally from Molise in the Abruzzo region of Italy. She had always loved cooking, her grandmother and uncle were professional cooks in Italy but her parents insisted she learn another trade. However after coming to Melbourne in 1956 and marrying Pietro Battaglia she started a catering business, had several very successful restaurants of her own, returned often to Italy and is now retired. She has helped me to test most of the recipes in this book and has passed on many of her own cooking 'secrets' for its readers. I am enormously grateful to her for her time and her great cooking skills.
Another successful woman chef of Italian origin, Patrizia Simone, has also given me some of her recipes. She runs Cafe Bacco and Simones at Bright in the North East of Victoria.
Patrizia came to Melbourne from Perugia in the Umbria region of Italy where her mother ran a catering business. She studied cooking there but explored another career until coming to Australia. She worked in kitchens in Melbourne and then after settling in the Ovens Valley area and doing a refresher course at trade school in Albury she and her husband George built the Ovens Valley Motor Inn and Simones restaurant.
When we talk to Silvana and Patrizia, despite differences in age, family background and in the region of Italy they came from, the theme that keeps recurring in their conversation is - the way it used to be done in Italy. This is not just about nostalgia but about being able to accept that there are perfect combinations, things which just work brilliantly together. Theres no need to add more or fiddle. What also emerges in talking to them and to other Italian cooks in Australia is how much they rejoice in the repetition of cooking tasks which they know and understand. There is a ritual in each of their making of the pasta which has a spirituality about it. Mind you, they have each adapted in various ways - using machinery to some extent where their mothers in Italy would have worked only by hand.
But their cooking is not just about memories it's also about what is available in Australia and the little tricks and clever solutions they find to using different ingredients. Whilst respecting the old ways, theyve both come up with their own creations and can be infintely flexible in their ways.
If the moment is right to eat and the particular ingredients are not there, an Italian chef, like Lou Molina, is sempre pronto - always ready, or, just makes it up as he goes along. "I just look at the cupboard and in the fridge, pick a few herbs, and make dinner." All part of the pleasure of life, being at table with friends and using what is to hand, as long as that includes a bottle of wine.
There is no such thing as 'Italian' food
It's the cooking of families, of villages, of town, cities, regions. Each have their own ways of doing things and they fiercely guard and protect their traditional ways. For some its familial pride, some because nothing is written down just passed on from mother to daughter.
Italian society does not abide by rules . Not a matter of what you know but who you know.
Here we try and look into the family secrets of some Italians living here - the Italian restaurant families of Melbourne (my mother's parents), the rural community of Myrtleford (my Irish grandparents and my aunt's) and the restaurant 'aristocracy' of Milano, Italy, where my grandparents came from.
In all these groups, meals are an essential part of daily life. Not just for survival but because food has such a high value. Everyone knows seasonality - knows when things are at their best; they know who has the best recipes. Food is not just a backdrop for business or to fill the stomach. It has a high value in everyone's lives and is thought about constantly, perhaps not more than sex, but ...
Other communities share these values but are not so inclusive of 'foreigners' as are their Italians. Certainly not the families in hospitality which this book concentrates on.
If we want to learn about Italians, how they love and live life so fully, best starting point is to learn how they eat, because eating is living. However don't want to take a nostalgic look at how food and life used to be enjoyed in Italy, but to see how it is prepared and eaten by Italian communities outside of their country. We can't re-produce Italian conditions so let's instead look at what can be done in Australia today
This book doesn't define or codify Italian food. It takes you to the table of some families and through their stories and by sharing in some of their secrets, perhaps confuses you further? It's all a bit like the plots of the great operas, not profound, often nonsensical, but what pleasure is had throughout.
And the association of music and art with food is inseparable in Italy and with the families whose stories are told here. Whilst Italians know and love seasonality and seek out those who understand this and can produce a particular dish which is always the same and keep on enjoying that sameness; they are also infinitely flexible. If the moment is right to eat and the particular ingredients are not there, an Italian chef, like Lou Molina, just makes it up as he goes along. "I just look at the cupboard and in the fridge, pick a few herbs, and make dinner." All part of the pleasure of life, being at table with friends and using what is to hand, as long as that includes a bottle of wine.
It is the story of these people.
Rino Codognotto - Order of Australia
Melbourne retiree Rino Codognotto, 85, was also awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services as a restaurateur.
Mr Codognotto is part of the group of immigrants nicknamed the Spaghetti Mafia.
He says it took time to introduce Italian cuisine and fine dining to Melbourne.
"It wasn't hard but it had to evolve," he said.
"When we started off here we had 100 per cent Italian clientele, but with the passing of the years that changed and it became Australian, and as you know Australians eat any type of food now."
SOCIETY - Melbourne Institution to Reopen
Established by Guiseppe Codognotto in 1932 at 23 Bourke Street, one of Melbourne's oldest Italian dining institutions returns when Society reopens under the DiMattina Group in May 2007. In its glory days, Society was run by Guiseppe's son, Rino, one of Melbourne's original 'Spaghetti Mafia', so named for their role in bringing the finest Italian food and service to the city.
Barry Humphries (who sketched diners from his favourite table), Gore Vidal, screen goddess Vivien Leigh, American author James Michener (who described Society as 'the best meal ever had') all dined there. Many of Melbourne's most influential sampled their first spaghetti at Society.
Originally named The Italian Society (after the Italian Workers' Club which was established for Italian migrants in the 1920s), the venue has survived several incarnations. 'Italian' was dropped from the name in the 40s to avoid war time anti-Italian sentiment. It ran as The Society, until a French twist brought about La Republique Brasserie. Short stints as Rhumbarella's, and The Society Cafe Wine Bar followed.
Having taken over in February 2007, The DiMattina Group has worked with the Codognottos to take Society back to its roots as the place for relaxed, Italian, home-style hospitality. The menu includes favourites like Osso Bucco, fresh home-style pastas, risottos, meatballs, anti-pasta, grilled seafood and meats finished with sinful desserts matched to local and imported beers and wines.
Society offers a morning coffee hit, lunch or dinner on the run, or somewhere to linger longer and watch the Bourke Street bustle. Upstairs the 'High Society' bar offers an extended experience of La Dolce Vita over cocktails and music, while the private function room caters for private functions.
Society Restaurant : 23 - 29 Bourke Street Melbourne
Bookings: (03) 9639 2544
❊ Address & Contact ❊
⊜ 23 - 29 Bourke Street Melbourne | Map
✆ (03) 9639 2544
❊ Web Links ❊
→ spaghetti mafia
→ Source: Food and Italians in Australia - miettas.com.au
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