Local Hero

One half of the pair that shaped a café that belongs to every Melburnian.

Could Pellegrini’s be the definition of legendary? The café at the top of Bourke Street is credited with everything from giving young Melburnians their first taste of adulthood to giving Melbourne its first taste of real espresso. While historians believe that Lygon Street can probably claim the latter honour, Pellegrini’s undoubtedly brought a cosmopolitan style of hospitality to the city, one that found a welcome home close to the theatre district and parliament.

Opened in 1954 by brothers Leo and Vildo Pellegrini, the espresso bar was bought in 1972 by Nino Pangrazio and Sisto Malaspina, who upheld what the Pellegrini brothers had created while bringing their own personalities to the business. Pangrazio grew up in a hospitality family (his father had worked at the nearby Café Florentino) and had a strong interest in food, while Malaspina loved the cut and thrust of service.

“He loved the life of going in and mingling with people,” says his wife, Vicki. “Talking to people, listening to their stories. He was just a very hospitable person.”

Day in, day out, the pair would serve espresso and granita, talk to the regulars, update the specials board and watch Melbourne grow up. At one time, children might have eaten their first bowl of spaghetti there. As teenagers, they’d return for a taste of sophistication in the form of their first inky-black espresso. Today, tourists come to experience Melbourne’s famed Italian culture while locals return again and again for the comfort of something familiar.

Outdoor shot of Pellegrini's and Sisto's longtime business partner & friend, Nino Pangrazio

One of the espresso bar’s most notable features is the mix of clientele you see perched on the bar stools. Everyone is welcome at Pellegrini’s. Pangrazio says they served every prime minister of Australia over the last 30 years while Malaspina was known to give people meals on the house if they couldn’t afford to pay.

“Every single person who walked into Pellegrini’s was acknowledged, not as a customer, but as a human being,” says food writer and Legend Emeritus Jill Dupleix.

As long as the neon sign was on at Pellegrini’s you knew that all was right in the world. Until one day it wasn’t.

On 9 November 2018, Malaspina was a tragic casualty of the Bourke Street terror attack, murdered when he went to try and assist another victim. In the days afterward, Pellegrini’s was transformed into a shrine for this man and the role he’d played in countless others’ lives, in Melbourne and beyond.

“Pellegrini’s community is unique,” says Pangrazio. “It doesn’t matter where I travel in the world, I run into customers. The love and the grief and the sympathy we received with the passing of Sisto was literally worldwide.”

“Sisto was important to so many people because he was the link that connected us all,” says Dupleix. “He was hospitality: he lived it and breathed it and that brought everyone together and brought everything alive.”

But after four decades of serving Melbourne, the Pellegrini’s spirit would not be broken by the Bourke Street tragedy. Pangrazio continued at the helm, upholding the warmth and rituals that he and Malaspina had created. As part of its March 2019 program, Melbourne Food & Wine honoured Malaspina’s life and the influence Pellegrini’s had on our city with Street Party for Sisto, an event in Crossley Street led by neighbouring hospitality businesses and attended by hundreds of guests who wanted to show their gratitude. In October 2019, Pangrazio retired, passing the reins to Malaspina’s son David.

So far, all signs point to an unchanged Pellegrini’s, a relief for many.

"The thing I love most about Pellegrini’s is its authenticity," says Lord Mayor Sally Capp. "The food is always prepared with love and my parents have been ordering the same favourite meals since their first visit decades ago. The smell of the coffee and the sound of friendly conversations when you walk in make Pellegrini’s such an inviting place. It is a Melbourne institution that helped our city discover café culture decades ago."

“We need our Sistos and our Ninos,” says Dupleix. “And we need wonderful spaces like Pellegrini’s in which many different tribes of people can get together to eat and drink and feel good, in an act of communion and community.”

Here’s to the next generation of Sistos and Ninos, who have had the opportunity to learn from the best.

Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.