1954 Pellegrini’s opens in Bourke Street

Pellegrini's, Bourke Street, Melbourne

Pellegrini’s (66 Bourke St, Melbourne) was one of the first wave of Italian cafés in the city and remains virtually unchanged to this day. Reviews these days are mixed, but Pellegrini’s is still a place where you hear Italian spoken and men in suits stand at the bar for their espresso.

Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar was opened by the Pellegrini brothers, Leo and Vildo, both of whom had worked at the nearby Café Florentino. Initially, it was designed to appeal to Melbourne’s immigrant community, providing authentic Italian food and espresso coffee, but soon became popular with theatre people, intellectuals and, eventually, tourists.

The claim that Pellegrini’s had the first espresso machine in Melbourne is open to debate, with establishments in Carlton’s Lygon Street acquiring their machines at about the same time. However, it’s likely that they had the first one in the CBD. Rinaldo Massoni had installed a coffee machine at Florentino in the 1920s but it used a different process from those invented by Gaggia in 1948, pushing steam rather than hot water through the coffee. Hence, according to aficionados, not a true espresso machine.

The original Pellegrini’s was tiny, but in 1958 the brothers extended it.  The famous neon sign, now heritage-listed, pointed to a second entrance further along Crossley Street. This rear section of the café has since been closed.

The café has counted many famous people among its former patrons, including Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, who visited frequently during the filming of On the Beach in the 1950s.

In 1972, the Pellegrinis sold the business to two Italians who had arrived in Australia in the post-war period – Sisto Malaspina and Nino Pangrazio.  The two had met while working for Peter Rowland, Melbourne’s society caterer. The café continued to serve only traditional food, hand-made in the time-honoured way.

Sisto Malaspina was tragically killed in a terrorist attack outside the restaurant in 2018. A year later, Nino Pangrazio sold his share to Sisto’s son David and retired at the age of 82.

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