1956 Leo’s Spaghetti Bar opens in St Kilda

Note the nifty brickwork! Image: True Local

Leo’s Spaghetti Bar started life as a small, chrome and Laminex hidey-hole in seedy Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, serving simple and authentic Italian food. Opening its doors in 1956, it was presided over by Leo himself. Pantaleo (Leo) Mastrototaro hailed from Bisceglie, Puglia, in southern Italy. He arrived in Australia in 1929 at the age of 20. What he did for the next 17 years remains a mystery to me but in 1946 he applied to become a naturalised Australian, achieving citizenship in 1947, nine years before setting up his restaurant.

I was a regular patron at the original Leo’s at 818 Fitzroy Street in the late 1960s. Leo had clearly based his business model on the theory that 20 minutes was quite enough time for anyone to eat lunch. In this establishment, if you lingered beyond the allotted time, a waiter would be dispatched to wipe down your table and hover, until you took the hint and left.  The restaurant was so small that it no doubt relied on the rapid turnover of customers to keep the money rolling in. The menu, as I recall, was supplemented by a weekly rota of daily specials: pasticcio, cannelloni or, on Fridays, Spanish Omelette.

Then, as happens with many successful businesses, Leo’s decided to expand. In 1970, much larger premises were acquired at 51-55 Fitzroy Street, a liquor license was procured, and a decorator was engaged. The food didn’t change much, but the Laminex and chrome were exchanged for exposed brick, chunky wood and, inexplicably, walls decorated with pictures of English pubs. Leo was in his 60s by this stage and a new manager, Dominico Abbattista, was engaged as the licensee for the new premises. Just three years later, Leo passed away.

Image: Bar Sales Melbourne

My advertising colleagues and I continued to patronise the new Leo’s Spaghetti Bar.  The menu expanded somewhat and you could even obtain two courses on one plate. One of my workmates invariably ordered spaghetti cotoletta, which involved a large pile of spaghetti nestling next to a breaded veal cutlet. This unique dish is still on the menu.

In 1980, Leo’s was sold to Akram ‘Akky’ Helal. While no longer under Italian ownership, the restaurant has continued to dish up classic Italian food as well as international dishes. It’s now open for a distinctly un-Italian breakfast – think eggs, bacon and sausages with all the trimmings or goat cheese omolette [sic]. The lunch and dinner menu includes pizza as well as a wide range of antipasti, pasta, mains and desserts. They don’t always get it right. Rigatoni alla Norma traditionally features eggplant but Leo’s version is made with chicken, spinach and roast capsicum. Pasta with chicken! Italians would throw up their hands in horror. And Spaghetti Bolognese (not a thing in the old country) features a geographically inexplicable “Napoli-based sauce”.

But we’re not in Italy, are we, so who cares if it’s not “authentic”? No doubt Leo’s many fans are happy with cheap drinks and reasonably priced, tasty food and hope that the venerable restaurant will continue as a Fitzroy Street institution for many years to come.

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