Loretta Bolotin is the co-founder and CEO of Free to Feed, the not-for-profit social enterprise empowering refugees and people seeking asylum to overcome social and economic barriers through the magic of food.

After her parents and grandparents migrated to Australia from southern Italy in the 1970s, they set up a deli in the multicultural northern suburbs of Melbourne. Bolotin grew up surrounded by the stories of new migrants and refugees in her neighbourhood; here’s where she eats in Melbourne.

My locals are… I’ve split my time between Melbourne and Sydney over the last year. This has given me a unique perspective and an ability to deeply reflect on what makes Melbourne such a special place for me. For me, food is emotional. It’s also a gateway and catalyst for conversation and connection. I use it to understand and dive into our rich migrant cultures and histories and learn about the stories that have shaped the cultures around me over time.

To that end, my favorite local is my mother’s Sicilian kitchen. My parents were raised in humble family environments and their food is honest, simple, peasant-like. Opening the fridge at home is like opening a door into my family history. It’s subtle, I see it reflected in the delicately sliced prosciutto, the fresh warm ricotta on the benchtop, newly harvested herbs from the garden and a humble loaf of bread. It’s truly a local I can rely on

I know I’m in Melbourne when I spend an afternoon at Free to Feed, up close and personal with a melting pot of new migrant cultures, where I can smell the aromatics of a new tea or learn how to make maqluba, mastering the dramatic flip of pot to reveal a spectacular rice dish. Gets me every single time.

In the mornings you’ll find me at my desk with a strong coffee in hand. Always brewed on the stovetop and served up in a beautiful and very nice-to-hold mug.

My defining food moment in Melbourne… Having grown up in a deli, my defining food moment has to be my parents slicing prosciutto, thinly and freshly right into a warm ciabatta and eaten immediately.

The best new thing I’ve found is, honestly, learning that in Iran, children fight over the tahdig,  the crunchy bread fried in olive oil at the bottom of the rice pot, just like I fought with my siblings to lick the beaters when my mum was making a cake. Since learning about tahdig with Hamed Allahyari (Free to Feed alumnus, now owner of Salamtea) I can’t get enough of Persian rice. On that note, Salamatea is a great little Persian eatery in Sunshine where you can taste Hamed’s tahdig directly.

When I want to push the boat out on a meal, I like to eat expensive wine bar snacks – obviously a very Melbourne thing, but not something that I get to do very often. I would probably head to City Wine Shop for some tasty morsels and some really fresh wine. I love the feeling of looking out onto the steps of parliament on a balmy summer’s eve and then strolling back northside through Carlton Gardens

When I want to dazzle friends from out of town, I like to… I would probably take them to La Pinta in Reservoir because it’s so delicious and intimate and such a lovely local spot in the north. I love that it doesn’t have any pretentious vibes. I like to sit up at the counter and observe the team in action, and engage in a casual chat about what’s on the menu and what I might drink (I am a very indecisive drinker and am swayed through conversation) as the many tapas plates quickly disappear.

There’s no better value in Melbourne than A1 Bakery. I regularly get lost in work first thing in the morning and find myself hungry in the mid-morning. I love a savoury something-something for brunch. And a warm spinach fatayer (controversially, I opt for the spinach only without cheese) from A1 Bakery really hits the spot. I love when a suburban strip maintains its essence and influences and A1 has remained consistent and comforting for many years.

If I could change one thing about eating and drinking here it would be… Many emergent food entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have the social media savvy or following but cook honest food and deserve a place in the Melbourne scene. I would love to see more opportunities for them to get a foot in the door.

But the one thing I hope never changes in Melbourne is the love and support the Melbourne community have shown in the work of Free to Feed. Religiously attending our events and cooking classes for over eight years, Melburnians are genuinely in dialogue with new and emerging community members and are ready to engage with where our new migrants take us food-wise, from Ukraine to Syria!

Freetofeed.org.au, @freetofeedmelbourne