The Italian restaurant in Australia has a longer history than you might suppose. Yes, we can largely thank post-WWII immigrants for the current popularity of Italian food, although the 1920s and 1930s had already seen the emergence of what would later be called Melbourne’s ‘spaghetti mafia’. Restaurants such as Café Florentino, The Latin and The Society appeared in this period. But the first wave of Italian restaurants arrived with the gold rush.
Even earlier, some restaurants were offering Italian dishes alongside their fancy French fare, provoking a scornful dismissal from rivals who stuck to good old British stodge. In 1842, James Harden advertised that:
J. Harden will not profess to supply French or Italian dishes, so much sought for by the Epicure, but shall conduct his establishment on the old English principle, of supplying a good Rump Steak, or Mutton Chop, so that those friends who favor him with a visit, may fancy themselves in the Mother country.
In the 1850s, Italians were attracted to the Australian goldfields along with hopefuls from all over the world. It seems some of them turned to cooking, perhaps to service their countrymen or simply to make a living. The references are fragmentary but there is evidence of Italian restaurants in both metropolitan and country Australia by the 1850s. It’s likely that these establishments were humble and they seemed to warrant no name other than “the Italian Restaurant”. There was at least one such in Melbourne as early as 1854 and another in Bendigo by 1856.
Over the following decades, they multiplied. In 1883, Peter Gardini, the proprietor of an Italian restaurant in North Parade, Port Adelaide, was before the courts for allowing prostitutes to assemble in his premises. By the end of the century, we find references to Italian restaurants in many towns and cities including Perth, Sydney, Bundaberg and Kalgoorlie. And, in Melbourne, we find Fasoli’s.
Although far from being the first Italian restaurant in Australia, Fasoli’s was the first to earn enduring fame. The premises in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, had been established since the 1850s as a lodging house and wine shop under the name of Pension Suisse. After many changes of ownership, in 1898 it was taken over by Vincenzo Fasoli and became Fasoli’s restaurant, the meeting place of Melbourne’s bohemian crowd.
Alison Vincent gives an account of the restaurant and the Fasoli family in her blog One Crumb at a Time. She recounts that Fasoli was born in Nobbialo, on Lake Como in northern Italy and migrated to Victoria in 1864. He joined an established Italian community in the Daylesford area and by 1869 had taken over a vineyard in the area and was producing prize-winning wines. He became the proprietor of the Carriers Arms Hotel in Daylesford in 1893 before establishing his Melbourne restaurant five years later.
Newspaper reports of the restaurant tell of its cosmopolitan patrons. “All races, creeds, professions and outsize personalities meet here on common ground” one article asserts. It goes on:
The food is mainly Italian. You begin with hors d’oeuvres – salami, lentils, French beans, sardines, beetroot and potato salads: then comes a dish of well-prepared macaroni, risotto, or soup’ “le plat du jour” consists of roast beef, pork, chicken, etc., with stuffed cabbages and other quaintly prepared vegetables; for dessert there is fruit and pudding for the Philistines, but the chosen prefer the excellent salads of endives, cheese and celery, or watercress. There is wine ad lib., red and white, and with the cheese a delicious cup of black coffee.
In 1905, Vincent Fasoli retired and the restaurant was then managed by his daughter, Katherine Maggia. Fasoli’s relocated to King Street, Melbourne, in 1907 and was eventually sold by Katherine’s son, Guido, in 1934. Along with the Café Denat, a forerunner of Florentino, Fasoli’s was one of Melbourne’s most significant restaurants at the turn of the 20th century. Its success and longevity helped establish the Italian restaurant as an important fixture in Australia’s culinary landscape.