1985 Beginnings of the La Porchetta restaurant chain

The original La Porchetta restaurant in Rathdowne Street, North Carlton. Image: Instagram

Rathdowne Street, in Melbourne’s inner suburb of North Carlton, now styles itself as Rathdowne Village with trendy shops and more than 20 cafes, pubs and restaurants. Among these, until early 2024, was La Porchetta. Taken over by Rocco Pantaleo and his wife, Felice Nania, in 1985, it offered a family-friendly atmosphere and reasonably priced Italian food. Five years later, the entrepreneurial owners decided to expand by franchising, with the first La Porchetta franchise operation opening in the northern suburb of Reservoir in 1990.

I lived in Rathdowne Street in the early 1970s, just a block from the La Porchetta site. Although gentrification was well underway, there were still strong Italian influences in Carlton. Lygon Street was the focus, but we could get a decent Italian meal in the back room of the Kent Hotel nearly opposite our run-down terrace. By the mid-’70s, a pizza place had popped up nearby. I have little memory of it, but it seems it was called La Porchetta and the proprietor was Salvatore Filado, of whom the only record seems to be a story about his car catching fire when a shop three doors away burned down in 1976. (The Age, 11 March 1976). In 1985, Pantaleo and Nania bought the run-down pizzeria with bigger things in mind.

The new La Porchetta was about a lot more than pizza. While pizza remained the primary offering, the menu expanded to include other dishes including starters, pasta and main courses that, if not authentically Italian, sounded Italian (I’m looking at you, Chicken Parmigiana). And you could get a drink. The franchise expanded and by 2001 had 84 Australian restaurants, with a stated aim to have 300 across Australia New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.

Rocco (Rocky) Pantaleo, was a larger-than-life figure. Born in Calabria, he emigrated to Australia in 1977 to find work. By 1985, he had built up enough capital to buy the Rathdowne Street business and its success led to a 1990 award for Best Value for Money Restaurant in Victoria. According to a 2017 article in The Age his success attracted the attention of figures from the Italian underworld who demanded protection money. This, the newspaper alleged, led to a long-standing relationship with high-ranking members of the ‘Ndràngheta or “Honoured Society” – the Mafia clans of Calabria.

Rocco himself had a tumultuous life. On the one hand, he was a benefactor of children’s charities and a successful restaurateur who regularly visited La Porchetta franchises to ensure they maintained high-quality food and service. On the other, he was a law unto himself. In 1996, he shot and killed a man in the La Porchetta restaurant in Niddrie. The incident occurred after a young waitress had accused Pantaleo of sexually assaulting her. A cousin of the waitress turned up at the restaurant along with two heavies from his security firm and, in fear for his life during a severe beating, Rocco produced a gun and shot one of the men in the head.  He was cleared of murder on the grounds of self-defence but later convicted of indecent assault and illegal possession of a weapon.

In 2010, Rocco Pantaleo died in a motorcycle accident. His sister, Sara, took over as head of the company, eventually announcing her retirement in 2020. The restaurant franchise is now owned by La Porchetta Holdings Pty Ltd and among its shareholders are the families of suspected and convicted underworld figures, most of whom deny any wrongdoing. The Carlton restaurant was, until February 2024, still run by members of the Pantaleo family. Perhaps the competition from more authentically Italian restaurants in the area led to its demise but, elsewhere, the La Porchetta franchise lives on, with around 30 restaurants in Australia and four in New Zealand. Well short of the 300 Rocky aimed for.

The current menu (as of early 2024) offers 23 different pizzas, many of which would make a pizzaiolo in Italy throw up his hands in horror. Since when did a combination of tomato, mozzarella, chicken, pineapple and barbecue sauce become a “classic”? Similarly, the “mix and match” pasta menu that encourages a random mix of pasta types and sauces would distress Italian purists. And let’s not talk about the cream in the carbonara or the chicken and avocado pasta sauce.

Strangely, there’s one traditional Italian dish noticeably absent from the menu.  Porchetta.

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