1903? Cicerello’s selling fish in Freemantle

Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons. Photographer: Bahnfrend

Origin stories can sometimes be…well…romanticised. Cicerello’s, on the seafront in Fremantle, Western Australia, claims to have been founded in 1903. However, other accounts say the legendary fish and chippery was founded in the late 1950s. It depends, I suppose, on how you define “founded”.

What is certain is that Salvatore Cicerello arrived in Australia in 1902. He was one of around 40 Sicilians from Capo d’Orlando, near Messina, who settled at Cape Peron, south of Fremantle around the turn of the 19th century. According to historian Sally May, the men operated an informal cooperative enterprise that was variously called the Rockingham Company or The Company. Salvatore is said to have pioneered the fishing of rock lobster in the Abrolhos Islands, some 220 nautical miles away. He no doubt sold his catch, which probably accounts for the 1903 date Cicerello’s now claims.

May writes that the Italian fishermen initially lived on their boats before constructing huts on the shore and, eventually, sharing houses in Rockingham and Fremantle. For half a century, there were battles with wholesalers and the Department of Fisheries’ official fish market to gain control of fish sales. It wasn’t until 1947 that a cooperative was formed to help provide fair prices for local fishers.

It was some years after that when Cicerello’s fish and chip shop began. The shop was an ancillary operation to a small fish market, founded by Salvatore’s son, Steve. Steve Cicerello was evidently a boot maker but, in 1958, decided to change careers. He started in a small way, reclaiming land from the sea using cement-filled bags, and constructed a building at Fishing Boat Harbour. The business proved successful and became something of an icon in Fremantle.

Cicerello’s continued as a family business until Steve died in 1989. Several years later it was sold and the new owners, the Unmack family, redeveloped the site.  The original building was demolished in 1966 and has been replaced with a lavish new building facing the harbour. The Cicerello’s name has been retained and the restaurant remains a drawcard for locals and visitors. A second venue has been opened at Mandurah.

Even if it wasn’t actually founded until 1958, a history stretching over more than six decades probably entitles Cicerello’s to its claim to be Western Australia’s “home of fish and chips”.

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