When does “stuck in the past” cross the line into “cultural landmark”? It’s a question to contemplate as Kylie sings I Should Be So Lucky from several wall-mounted screens around Cafe Notturno. The scent of old-school pizza is in the air and the landmark illuminated sign with its slogan “Where friends meet” splashes fluorescent light across the Lygon Street footpath.
It’s also a question this Carlton stalwart will not have to answer, given that, on Sunday August 27, it closed its doors for good after 45 years of trade on Australia’s most famous food strip.
I’m here for a last supper. It’s not the only supper I’ve eaten at Notturno, but it’s been years, maybe even a decade or so, since I’ve scanned its oversized laminated menu. It’s packed with an astonishing number of items, many of which – capricciosa and meat lovers pizza, garlic bread, ravioli bolognaise and penne with chicken and avocado – are well-ensconced members of the Aussie-Italian food cannon.
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It’s the kind of all-encompassing menu that dedicated followers of Melbourne’s current food scene rarely encounter and if we do, we’ll often approach with a protective shield of irony, pleading nostalgia, hangover or convenience.
But now that Notturno’s joining the list of former Lygon Street diners, it’s hard to shake some melancholy, the feeling that we need to ditch the irony and understand we’re losing something here – cultural memory, a part of our heritage.
Restaurants like these, after all, with their terrazzo floors and marble counters, were where many non-Italian Melburnians discovered the joy of Italian flavours in the 1960s and ’70s. They offered the dining public a looser, flexible alternative to fine-dining restaurants and pubs.
These Euro-style hybrid restaurants with their coffee machines and milkshakes, gelato and garlic prawns, scaloppine and pizza topped with pre-cut ham and black olives from a tin, were integral building blocks for the diverse food culture that followed. And something else? They’re still fun, unpretentious places to hang out.
As I wait for the rushed but friendly waitress to return with the news of which beers are still available (Carlton Draught is already out, as is the Peroni) I realise that the emptying beer fridge is the only obvious sign that the end is nigh.
Word has got out and Notturno is packed, like it was in its 1980s heyday when it opened 24 hours a day, was a favourite of notorious figures such as Chopper Read and Alphonse Gangitano, and was where the community gathered to celebrate Italy winning the men’s soccer world cup in 2006. The walls still sport Italian flags and a photo wall of regulars. The bustle is real. People shout greetings to each other. It’s a wake and a party. As the clock winds down, Notturno remains as ever, “where friends meet”.
Post-capricciosa, I have a word at the counter with Salvatore Cultrera, Notturno’s owner since 2001 (he also worked there for 10 years prior to that). His wife, Linda, whom he met here, is working too. Both admit the closure is an emotional rollercoaster. Both are sad but their enthusiasm for life post-Notturno (Italy, a roadtrip around Australia), free of relentless restaurant hours is palpable.
Their work here is done.