Melbourne institution Pellegrini's inducted into Good Cafe Guide hall of fame

Co-owner Nino Pangrazio (left) with long-time staff Maria (cook) and Paul (barista).
Co-owner Nino Pangrazio (left) with long-time staff Maria (cook) and Paul (barista). Photo: Jane Holroyd

It's Tuesday morning and the city footpaths have been humming since 6.30am. Melbourne's CBD roars to life earlier these days - the morning peak stretched by commuters taking advantage of free public transport before 7.15am.

But Pellegrini's, on its perch near the top end of Bourke Street, seems to thumb its nose to the passing hordes. At 8am, the glass door is unlocked and the regulars begin to trickle in for their traditional, Italian-style coffees. The same blend of Vittoria beans – now marketed as Brazil Rex – has been used at Pellegrini's for sixty years, or since the espresso bar first opened for business in 1954.

Chris Sutton then, is a relatively new customer. He's been stopping in at Pellegrini's every weekday morning for 12 years - since he began working "at the top end of Collins [Street]". He's pleased the cafe has been recognised with this year's Hall of Fame award by The Age Good Cafe Guide.

Other city cafes come and go says Sutton, but Pellegrini's is like a rock. Barista Paul Pinetta (37 years' service) knows Sutton wants a latte, and owner Nino Pangrazio usually hands him a copy of the paper once he's settled himself on a red leather bar stool. "I love the atmosphere, and the staff are friendly," Sutton says by way of explaining his customer loyalty. Importantly, he knows what to expect: "The coffee is good ... When Paul makes the coffee, it's a bit stronger."

As for Pangrazio and Pinetta, they appreciate more than anyone else that the cafe holds a very special place in this city's coffee-soaked heart.

Pellegrini's - virtually unchanged in 60 years - seems an obvious candidate for the "Hall of Fame" award in The Age Good Cafe Guide - which has charted a minor Melbourne revolution - "third-wave coffee" since the book's inception in 2011.

While Pangrazio is well-attuned to newly fashionable single-origin brews and various methods of filtering coffee (he often steps around the corner to Seven Seeds' Traveller coffee bar) he can't quite come at anything but a good, strong espresso. "You get this siphon coffee now... It's not for me. I guess you get used to something."

Pangrazio points out that he and business partner Sisto Malaspina have owned Melbourne's original brew bar for "40 years last Tuesday". Now aged 76 and 68 respectively, the friends purchased the business from original owners Leo and Vildo Pellegrini on June 10, 1974.

Pangrazio admits he and Malaspina are "entering their twilight years" and it may alarm many Melburnians (and many regularly touring musicians and film stars) to hear there is no succession plan in place. Pangrazio's son is too busy running three golf shops, and his daughter is busy wrangling three daughters of her own. Offering words of comfort though, Pangrazio says dollar signs will not be the main factor "when the time comes".

Once, a large coffee company offered Pangrazio and Malaspina large sums of money (in cash) to switch their allegiance from Vittoria, but the pair would not budge. They'll display the same steadfastness when the time comes to retire; "We have to be careful who we sell to," says Pangrazio. "We don't want radical change here."

Why not? Why will you care after you step away from Pellegrini's?

"I've spent half my life here. We can't just walk away ... When it does happen - probably in the next two or three years - we will have to vet (potential buyers) very carefully. We owe it to our customers."

Incidentally, Russell Crowe is a latte man.