Sisto Malaspina could almost always be found at Melbourne's Pellegrini's espresso bar, happily making coffee and chatting with customers from behind the counter. I sat down with him in June 2015 for an interview, and he was wonderfully down-to-earth and soulful. He was killed on November 9 this year in the Bourke Street attack.
Sisto Malaspina and long-time friend Nino Pangrazio took over Melbourne's now-iconic Pellegrini’s 44 years ago. Since then – in fact, since it first opened in 1954 – little has changed, from the red vinyl stools to the heritage-listed neon sign. There’s comfort in the familiar, and generations of Pellegrini’s customers are a testament to this. For these near-religious regulars, visits bookend the day or break up the week. A coffee to keep you company. A rich, cheesy lasagne to warm you up. An off-menu watermelon granita in summer – almost always. The menu: no frills, classic, Italian. The company: more akin to family.
Almost everyone has a story about Pellegrini’s co-owner Sisto Malaspina. His smile was so wide and contagious, your own became a reflex. His welcome was so warm, it embraced you, inviting you in to pull up a chair or seat at the counter. Malaspina’s legend as a kind and gracious host spread across Melbourne during the 44 years he ran the cafe. The hard-working Italian immigrant both defined and defied old-school hospitality.
When I interviewed Sisto Malaspina, I was running Profile Pub; an A5 print magazine that celebrated local businesses. Issue two profiled people in the place they often felt most at ease; their home. Surrounded by the objects they treasure – kitchenware, framed pictures and souvenirs from abroad – conversations became more of a reflex than an exchange of words. My chat with Sisto was no different.
“I love people,” Malaspina told me at his home. “Especially Pellegrini’s customers.” Widely regarded around town, Malaspina was a social animal. A showman. He was charismatic. Sometimes sweary, mostly funny and always wonderfully spirited. If his bold and busy shirt and scarf was a costume we came to know and love, then Pellegrini's was his stage. “I like the things that are conducive to the wellbeing of everyone,” he told me that day.
At Pellegrini’s, from the service to the spaghetti, it was always fun; hardly fancy. "We use five [ingredients] at most on a Friday. Monday to Thursday, we use three,” Malaspina said. Rooted in traditional Italian family values, the down-to-earth meals often started with a conversation. “If the staff explain the dishes to you, there’s a relationship; there’s more soul.”
A space where the social exchange is as strong as the coffee served, trips to Pellegrini’s are ongoing lessons in one of life’s greatest pleasures: how to drink a cup of “caffe”; Malaspina said about the perfect latte: “It’s all about timing.” He motioned to his eyes. “You look,” he said, then points to his ears. “And listen.” He paused. “It’s an art that takes a bit of practice – but it can be done.”
One of the first city cafes to install an espresso machine, Pellegrini’s helped pave the way for Melbourne’s coffee revolution. And today the espresso bar remains resistant to fads. Pellegrini’s has served the same blend of Vittoria coffee for its entire four decades. It’s a place people can rely on; where they can find comfort in routine, in familiar faces, places and smells. “We don’t even change the colour scheme,” Malaspina said. “So why would we want to change the sauces or the cakes?"
Malaspina was 18 when he left Poggio di Bretta, a small Italian village close to the Adriatic coast, and made his passage to Australia. A call for two-year national service incited his journey.
“I’m very much opposed to any form of violence, and since I had two brothers in Melbourne [I thought,] ‘Why not join them?’” It was 1963, and he immediately fell for the city. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “Not once did I think, ‘What am I doing here?’” At any one time, rising above the clatter of plates and the whir of the coffee machine is a love story between a man and his town. “Melbourne is a wonderful city, there is the best of everything here.”
Fast-forward four decades and the Pellegrini’s story is a series of vignettes: friends with their arms around each others’ shoulders, knowing nods, a comforting hand, cheeky grins and roars of laughter. But it still feels like you could have stepped back to the ’50s or ’60s. I asked him why Pellegrini’s retains that essence after all these years.
“Because that is when I grew up,” Malaspina says. “We all look back at life when we were young and almost invincible. And that’s when you’ve got a never-ending amount of energy.”
When we talked, though he might not have moved as fast as he did back then, the 70-year-old was still behind the counter almost every day. Watching him make coffee and joke with customers, it was easy to see why. Sisto Malaspina was a family man and his customers were his next of kin. “If the customer is happy,” he said. “Then everyone is happy.”