Restaurants and cafes open their doors, but Lygon Street’s troubles aren’t over

Coffee culture has become synonymous with Melbourne and Australia — so famed is the reputation, it’s even gone global.

Key points:

  • Lygon Street was known as Melbourne’s ‘Little Italy’ — a title it is struggling to maintain
  • Harsh economic realities — made worse by COVID-19 — have strained the area’s identity
  • Once the go-to suburb for Italian immigrants, there are now less than 300 Italian-born residents

And while there’s still a lot of heated debate about where the coffee culture really began, Italian migrants in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton are often credited with helping to pioneer the country’s love affair with coffee and cafes.

The main drag, Lygon Street, became famous in the post-war decades for all things Italian, food, coffee, cars and nightlife.

Ever since, the strip has been the undisputed home of Melbourne’s Italian community and culture.

While Victorian restaurants and cafes have reopened today, businesses on the once-bustling street have been struggling even before the damage dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rose Gibaldi works with her brother Angelo Gibaldi at his cafe-restaurant Stuzzichino on the southern end of the street.

“In the 1980s, Lygon Street was all hustle and bustle, it was the epicentre of Melbourne.”

She says the strip’s woes have been building for years. “I walk down the street at night, and I see how it’s changed from when I was growing up, and I want to cry,” Ms Gibaldi says.

Looming over the empty footpaths are more than a dozen “for lease” signs, shuttered-up shops and posters plastered on walls asking for rent relief.

The brick exterior of Threshermans Bakehouse with a for lease sign.

The brick exterior of Threshermans Bakehouse with a “for lease” sign. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

In an ominous sign, one well-known venue had a poster in the window saying the landlords had seized the property back from tenants.

The high vacancy, coupled with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, could mean Melbourne’s ‘Little Italy’ is in big trouble.

‘Little Italy’ label not what it once was

The dark interior of an Italian restaurant.

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a further blow to the once-bustling street. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Compared to the post-war decades when thousands of Italians called Carlton home, the area’s Italian flavour has dulled with fewer than 300 Italian-born residents remaining, according to the 2016 census.

Eric Pace and his sister Ersilia run Casa Del Gelato, first established by their father Ottorino in 1980.

Two Australian-Italian men and a woman standing in front of a gelato shop.

The Pace family have lived in the area for decades and run Casa Del Gelato. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

“There’s only a handful of us left since that era … so there’s been a lot of change, the ‘Little Italy’ label is not as strong as it once was,” he says.

There are fewer Italians, and fewer businesses too.

According to a report from real estate agency Fitzroy’s published last year, Lygon Street had a vacancy rate of 13.5 per cent, one of the highest for a shopping strip in Melbourne.

Ottorino Pace echoed the sentiments of others who told the ABC they felt the Melbourne City Council had neglected them.

Mr Pace is referring to decisions like moving annual Grand Prix festivities to Federation Square, and the bludgeoning of the once-famed Lygon Street Festa that, in its heyday, would pull crowds of close to 100,000 people.

“The Grand Prix was on here in the park, there’d be a big marques set up of sponsors where you could buy merchandise, but they took that away,” Ms Gibaldi says.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp says the Council is collaborating with precincts to boost marketing and encourage people back into key commercial areas.

She says it’s also allocating $19 million in its budget to be spent on major events and festivals to attract people back into the city “when the time is right”.

“Trading conditions are incredibly tough at the moment right across the board,” she says.

“That’s why we’re proposing a COVID-19 recovery budget including a rate freeze for commercial and residential ratepayers.”

Businesses on edge may be nudged off

A former restaurant on Lygon st which has now closed, and has a large yellow for lease sign on its window.

Many locations up and down the iconic strip can be now seen covered in “for lease” signs. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Traders along the strip lament the decline of Carlton’s Italian community, but they also blame soaring rents, a lack of parking and the spread of Italian cuisine across the country for Lygon Street’s woes.

“Back in the day, this was the only place you could get a pizza or pasta, now you can go anywhere,” Ms Gibaldi says.

Family-owned Papa Ginos has been in Lygon Street for more than 40 years, but Alex Brosca says staying open during the pandemic was too difficult for him.

He has been looking forward to the easing of restrictions today, but worries for some businesses it won’t be enough.

Line chart showing Australia's current Covid-19 growth factor of 0.98 as of May 28, 2020

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“I know of quite a few businesses that were just on the edge, and I think something like this will just throw them over, basically,” he says.

On the northern end of Lygon Street, the picture is better but far from rosy.

A major redevelopment of the old King and Godfree grocers on the corner of Faraday and Lygon streets has breathed new life into the area, and trendy eateries like pizza and pasta restaurant DOC were still pulling crowds before the pandemic.

But DOC co-owner Michael Costanzo says he’s lost “50 to 60 per cent” of his staff because they were temporary migrants from Italy, forced to return home when they didn’t receive government support.

Is this the end of an era?

Cafe Cavallino

An Italian restaurant on Lygon St with its windows covered by newspaper. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Alongside Lygon Street’s woes is another undeniable trend.

Melbourne’s Italian community is getting smaller, and not just in Carlton.

With very few new Italian migrants in recent decades, unsurprisingly the latest 2016 census revealed there were about 60,000 Italians in Melbourne compared to nearly 90,000 in 1996.

Over at the nearby Italian Museum, CEO of CO.AS.IT, an organisation co-funded by the Italian Government, Marco Fedi says despite the challenges, the Italian community has shown resilience before.

“In the early stages of Italian migration to Australia … there was an element of xenophobia and racism, Italians survived that, leapt through it,” Mr Fedi says.

He says it’s now up to the next generation of Australian-Italians to retain the traditions the pioneers of Lygon Street established, and he’s hopeful they will.

“I haven’t given up on Carlton yet, or on the future of the Italian community.”

Empty Lygon Street footpath in front of Papa Gino's restaurant

COVID-19 has worsened Lygon Street’s pre-existing identity struggle. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Back on Lygon Street, some of the area’s earliest trailblazers can still be found in a sign there’s life here yet.

Giancarlo Giusti, the founder of Grinders coffee, wanders down the street gesturing at the sky.

“Normally I’d be in Verona by now for the summer but I can’t fly, still, if I can’t be there at least I’m on Lygon Street,” he says.

At the University Cafe, established more than 60 years ago, owner Giancarlo Caprioli, now in his 80s, leans against the door of the restaurant greeting people as they pass.

Back at Casa Del Gelato, Mr Pace says he’s staying put.

“We’ve shaped Melbourne to be what it is today, the vibe is going to come again, it’s going to take time, but Lygon Street will always be Lygon Street.”

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