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    Pellegrini’s sign is heritage-listed. (Audrey Bourget)
It's one of the city’s oldest cafes, and the plate of pasta will take you back to the 1950s.
Audrey Bourget

12 OCT 2018 - 9:38 AM  UPDATED 11 OCT 2018 - 4:34 PM

Going to Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, on Melbourne’s Bourke Street, feels like taking a time machine straight back to the 1950s. The neon sign (now heritage-listed), the decor and the menu haven’t changed since the restaurant opened in 1954.

Pellegrini's Melbourne

Checkered floor, simple pasta and old-style hospitality: not much has changed at Pellegrini’s since the 1950s.

Originally opened by the Pellegrini brothers, it has changed hands only once. Sisto Malaspina and Nino Pangrazio took over in 1974, and more than forty years later, you can still see them making coffee or chatting with customers from behind the counter.

What makes Pellegrini’s so special?

There’s no real physical menu at Pellegrini’s. There’s an old board hanging from the ceiling with an idea of what you can get, but if you really want to know what’s been cooking, you’ll have to ask. “The staff has to explain to you what’s on offer that day. There’s more of an involvement and soul that way,” explains Malaspina, who you can spot immediately among the staff wearing black and white, as he always wears his trademark colourful shirt and scarf.

Pellegrinis Sisto Malaspina

You can see Pellegrini’s co-owner Sisto Malaspina behind the counter most days.

You can get certain pasta, like spaghetti Bolognese (the most popular), lasagne and spaghetti marinara daily, while others like carbonara, gnocchi and ricotta cannelloni are served only on certain days. They come sprinkled with parmesan and with a side of buttered bread. There’s also pizza and classic soup minestrone, but the pasta is where it’s at. It’s nothing fancy, just good, honest Italian home cooking.

Pellegrinis carbonara

The fettucine carbonara is not made everyday, but ask the waiter and you might be in luck.

The watermelon granita is also a must, as is finishing your meal with a coffee. Pellegrini’s was one of the first establishments in Melbourne to have an espresso machine. They’ve been getting their coffee beans from the same supplier for decades; same with their meat and groceries. “If you’re loyal to your suppliers and look after them, they’re going to look after you,” explains Malaspina.

Pellegrini’s customers have been loyal, too. Some have been coming for decades, bringing their children and grandchildren. On the wall behind the counter, Malaspina keeps memories of them. There are a few celebrity photos too, but he’s not too fussed about that. He’s much more excited to show me the letter a young girl called Henrietta recently sent him, writing about how excited she was to come back to her favourite café.

Pellegrinis minestrone and granita

While everybody talks about the pasta, the minestrone soup and watermelon granita are also not to be missed.

One of Pellegrini’s regulars is Robert Broadhurst, who started coming 27 years ago, when he moved from country Victoria to Melbourne to study. “It’s hospitable, there’s great food and they make the best coffee in Melbourne,” he says. “The spaghetti marinara, you can’t fault it. It’s the same, you know what you’re going to get, and it’s predictable.”

Broadhurst has moved back to the country but he makes sure to stop by when he’s in town. “There’s a mix of people here; bankers and lawyers from Collins Street, students, unemployed and employed people, young and old. It’s a mixed bag. If you want to see a slice of Melbourne, come here,” he adds.

“It’s hospitable, there’s great food and they make the best coffee in Melbourne."

Malaspina and his staff know how to make all these people feel welcome. “I feel like an honorary grandfather to many,” says Malaspina.

Pellegrinis spaghetti Bolognese

The spaghetti Bolognese comes sprinkled with parmesan and with a side of buttered bread.

And he’s still there almost every day. “I work my 70 hours a week as I did, 40, 45 years ago. It’s not as intensive, I don’t move as fast and I don’t take as many steps, but I still enjoy what I do. I feel needed,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with good health. I don’t feel any different now than I felt when I first started.” Pellegrini’s doesn't either, and that’s why we love the place so much.