Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • The Italian’s cultivation of food, their tradition of cooking and their appreciation of drinking wine with food was a welcome change to the existing way of life.
  • Italian restaurants were very popular and promoted the eating-out trend.
  • The Italian-Mediterranean food culture fitted nicely into our eating habits and many of their dishes are now regularly on our dinner tables at home.
  • A pasta dish would be found on every menu serving “Contemporary or Modern Australian” food.

by Fritz Gubler

Even before the mass migration programs of the 1950s, Italian restaurants had made their mark on the Australian dining landscape – first in Melbourne and then in Sydney.

With over a million Europeans displaced as a result of World War II, Australia would see an influx of refugees during the late-40s and early-50s. By 1953 over 170,000 people had arrived under the Mass Resettlement Scheme for Displaced Persons. Instead of the usual English and Irish, people from Italy, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and from Hungary arrived in Australia and later more immigrants came from the Middle East.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme

The Snowy Mountains Scheme employed Australia’s most multi-cultural workforce since the gold rush of the 1800s. More than 100,000 people from over thirty different countries were absorbed into the project. The Scheme took 25 years to build and was completed in 1974. When the project finished, the majority of those who had arrived to build the Scheme and hoping for a new life, stayed with many becoming Australian citizens.

These new Aussies, with their energy and entrepreneurial spirit, changed the country’s social and cultural fabric and contributed substantially to the economy of a modern Australia.

Among other trades many immigrants opened businesses that specialized in food-retail and food-wholesale, including cafés and restaurants. Preferring positions where they were not disadvantaged by a lack of English, they often worked behind the scenes in positions. As a result, they tended to employ staff from their own language background and predominantly attracted customers from their own culture.

The Italian pioneers

Many of these new immigrants came from Italy and it was only natural for them to express themselves through food and cooking. The cultivation of food, their traditions of cooking and their passion of eating was certainly an important element in creating some comfort in their new home country and to showcase their identity to the new society. Their Mediterranean food diet was also suitable to our climate and lifestyle and it was easy to introduce it to the Aussies.

These pioneers created and added new culinary elements to the Colonial cuisine, but only slowly made an impact to our culinary make up in Melbourne and in Sydney. In the early days, there were only a few restaurants flying the Italian flag in Sydney, among them Romano’s in Castlereagh Street and Milano in Elizabeth Street.

Mario Vigano and Mietta O’Donnell

Mario’s, one of the most popular restaurants at the time, was established in Melbourne in 1932 by Mario Vigano. By the 1950s, Mario’s also offered entertainment, concerts and shows, becoming the “in place” in town. A Melbourne landmark, Mario’s would operate until 1997.
Mario’s granddaughter Mietta O’Donnell carried on the Italian restaurant dynasty. The famous Mietta’s opened in 1974 and proved to be an instant hit. Mietta herself sadly passed away in 2001, in the middle of her very successful restaurant career.

Olive oil was only available from chemist in small bottles and today it is placed on many tables in restaurants and at home and we grow and produce our own high quality olive oil.

Beppi and Norma Polese

Beppi Polese, a young Italian with big dreams, arrived in 1952. He followed his cousin who had fled the poverty in Italy a few years earlier. After a tough few years and plenty of hard work, his dream came true. In 1956, he opened his own restaurant – Beppi’s.

Beppi’s was named Best Italian Restaurant in Sydney in 1962 and during the following six decades would receive multiple awards and recognition from professional associations, restaurant reviews and from the Italian and Australian Governments.

Beppi, along with his wife Norma, would make sure that every guest received a friendly welcome. Over the years, they hosted countless diners including state and federal politicians and world famous VIPs such as Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger. The restaurant became the birthplace for many other dreamers with a number of his employees going on to develop and open popular Italian restaurants of their own.

Unfortunately, Beppi will not be at the 60th Anniversary in June this year – a record for any restaurant in Australia – as sadly he passed away in March at the age of 90. Norma will be there however, she and the family are still welcoming their guests with a friendly “Buonasera”.

Armando and Mario Percuoco

In 1972 Armando Percuoco came to Australia and joined his father Mario at the popular Arriverderci restaurant in East Sydney. A few years later he opened Pulcinella in partnership with his father before he did it all by himself! He opened the award winning Buon Ricordo in 1993 which today is still one of the most popular Italian Restaurant in town.

Stefano de Pieri

Stefano de Pieri arrived in Melbourne in 1974 and worked in multiple restaurants before opening his own Stefano’s Cantina in Mildura.

Garlic was not in the cook books of the early settlers.

Valerio Nucci

Milan-born Valerio Nucci was chef at Café di Stasio in Melbourne for 10 years, a restaurant which remains a leader in the Melbourne restaurant scene to this day.

Stefano Manfredi

After a few tough years in his new country, working in various kitchens in Sydney, Stefano Manfredi opened his first restaurant in 1983. The Restaurant was a modest project but his hard work paid off, it got a good review in the very first edition of the Good Food Guide which had a great effect on his business. Later Stefano made his mark with bel mondo in the Rocks and today he is still involved in various restaurant projects.

Pietro and Guy Grossi

Pietro Grossi came to Australia to work as a chef at Mario’s in Melbourne and later his son Guy followed him to be a chef. Guy worked in some of the best restaurants in Melbourne before he opened his own Quadri. In 1999 the Grossi Family bought the famous Florentino which became the foundation of the family restaurant empire they established over the last 15 years.

We realise the above list merely scratches the surface, with many more Italian immigrants and their families having contributed to the Australia we have today. We are grateful for that and especially for their influence on the Australian food culture.

By the turn of the last century the Italians had clearly established their presence; Italian was the second most widely spoken language in Australia, the Italian cuisine was a very popular eating-out food choice and many of their dishes are regularly on the dinner tables in our homes.