The influx of immigrants after World War II is widely credited with introducing Australians to Italian food. But, in Melbourne, it began much earlier. In the early 1900s, there was Fasoli’s. Then, in the 1920s and 30s, came a number of Italian restaurants opened by recent immigrants with names like Codognotto, Massoni, and Triaca. Mario’s Restaurant was among them and was to continue, in one form or another, for 57 years.
Mario Vigano was from a small commune near Como in northern Italy. He had spent time in the hotel business in Canada, where he met his wife Maria, and in the Canadian military before returning to Italy in 1919. According to his grandson, Rino Codognotto, Vigano’s opposition to Mussolini led to an attempt on his life and the couple was forced to flee to Australia.
Arriving in Melbourne in 1928, Vigano at first worked as a waiter at Scott’s Hotel before acquiring the lease of the Melbourne Club Hotel at 198 Exhibition Street. Here, in 1932, he opened Mario’s Restaurant, serving mainly Italian food. But “Signor Mario”, as he was known, told The Argus in 1933 that there was a lot more to the food of his homeland than most Australians realised. He claimed that, being from the north, he was 20 years of age before he tasted spaghetti, explaining that rice, minestrone and polenta were more the norm in the country around Milan.
Within a year of opening, Mario’s Restaurant had already been extended twice. It continued to expand, eventually catering for up to 200 people. Three years after opening, the advertising claimed it was “Where connoisseurs foregather”. The hotel licence allowed the restaurant to serve a full range of wines and liqueurs – an advantage at a time when many restaurateurs were falling foul of Victoria’s restrictive licensing laws.
Despite the licence, Mario himself had problems with out-of-hours trading. It seems there was another side to the genial host, particularly when it came to relationships with the police and the Licensing Court. In fact, one hearing in 1942 was told that he was “temperamentally unsuited to hold a victualler’s licence”. He was even accused of having spat in the face of a policeman.
Vigano sponsored the immigration of chefs from Italy. This did not always go as planned, with at least one court case against a chef who broke his four-year contract to work for a competitor. Along with their regular duties, it appears the waiters at Mario’s Restaurant often entertained the guests by bursting into song. Later there was professional entertainment as well, with the restaurant offering a full cabaret show by the 1960s.
Mario Vigano died in his restaurant in 1966 and two years later Mario’s closed. The name continued, however, with Vigano’s son opening a new Mario’s Restaurant in the seaside suburb of Brighton. This venture operated from 1968 until 1989.