66 Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Sat 8am-11.30pm; Sun noon-8pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9662 1885|
Melbourne is mourning Pellegrini's co-owner Sisto Malaspina. Not just his friends and regulars. The days after his death have seen total strangers drop by Pellegrini's to pay respects to one of the frontmen of a business that has been a cornerstone of Melbourne hospitality for more than six decades.
Even if you have never sipped a long black there, you know Pellegrini's is important to Melbourne. Just on data alone. It was founded in 1954 by the Pellegrini brothers Leo and Vildo, who imported Australia's first espresso machine, thus making Pellegrini's patient zero for Melbourne's globally recognised coffee – and cafe – culture.
This entire icon column was started for the Pellegrinis of Melbourne – places that have shaped the city. But while this was many non-Italians' introduction to espresso and spaghetti, Pellegrini's true claim to fame is the way it moves, not what it serves. The policy has always been one of an open door, simplicity and affordability. When the Pellegrini brothers passed the torch to their ex-Florentino workmates Malaspina and Nino Pangrazio in 1974, almost nothing changed, and aside from now accepting cards, nothing has since.
Literally. Etched, if not in stone, is the only menu on a solid timber board hung from the ceiling. Today, you can eat the same menacing slab of lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, and ricotta ravioli in proper napolitana sauce that might have fuelled your parents' – or grandparents' – first dates. There is a back-bracing minestrone that means it. Everything comes with powdered parmesan, and thick slices of white bread spread with margarine.
It is not pasta that demands attention for its looks, and Romans might wince at the absence of bite, except this isn't a restaurant so much as a house with a public door. Who would criticise their hosts like that?
It takes a couple of goes getting into the rhythm. Then, as now, it's a fend-for-yourself situation finding a red stool either along the (original) wood and bronze bar, or against the wall ledge. If there's space, and luck's on your side, you can take a seat in the steamy kitchen at the rear. Ordering involves catching attention at the bar. Some pay on the spot for coffees. Or you can keep notching things up and while nothing is written down, they know your bill at the end. Sometimes a coffee, or a glass of the citrusy, icy, sweet granita you didn't order just shows up. Sometimes a neighbour will gift you their mistake.
Pellegrini's hasn't remained unchanged without some determined effort. Behind the bar, among the celebrity autographs, and dog-eared pictures of long-standing staff, family and suppliers, are the coffee bags. They've had the same butcher for 30 years. The same coffee brand – and blend – for 60. Vittoria's Les Schirato, 19 when he met the duo, remembers Malaspina being the most unapologetically slick Italian he knew with his cravat and handbag. Coffee roasters big and small have offered cheques and machines trying to bag the contract, but Schirato says Malaspina lived the "if it ain't broke" dictum. "I always tried to give him better machines, new signage, our different blends, but he's say 'This is nice, but we are good'."
To that end, the time warp effect is immense. The exterior neon sign is heritage-listed. A liquor licence has never been sought, making this a rare sober space. You don't notice the lack of drink, but you certainly feel a different vibe.
This 64-year-old portal to Italy and the 1950s is one of city's greats for all of this. Because it never aspired to greatness, but goodness.
A state funeral filled the streets for Malaspina. But his legacy lives at Pellegrini's. Pangrazio is already back behind the bar. Your coffee is waiting.
Address 66 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9662 1885
Open Mon-Sat 8am-11.30pm; Sun noon-8pm
Signature dishes Spaghetti bolognese, carbonara, lasagne and espresso coffees, cake and granitas
Famous diners Pierce Brosnan, Gough Whitlam, Russell Crowe, everyone.