Melbourne’s Italian renaissance: how next-generation migrants are changing the city | Australian food and drink
It’s happy hour at Carlton’s historic King & Godfree in Melbourne’s mid-north. Two preppy, 30-something Romans discuss visas, doctorates and the crazy weather over Campari soda. Across Lygon Street at cafe Brunetti Classico, gluttons devour dolci to the sounds of singer-songwriter Jovanotti, while a few doors down at DOC Delicatessen – where giant wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano glisten behind the window – regulars pick up their prosciutto di San Daniele, thinly sliced , by favor.
Scenes like this make chef Andrea Vignali wonder if he’s even left home. “I remember asking myself ‘Is this Australia?’. I felt like I was back in Italy,” says Vignali. He co-owns Al Dente, a Carlton enoteca, with fellow countryman Davide Bonadiman.
Mauro Sanna, owner of Preston cafe Pausa Pranzo, had a similar first impression. “I knew that a lot of Italians had migrated to Melbourne, but there was this Sopranos image in my mind: old men in sweatpants and coppola hats hanging around malls. What I found felt more authentically Italian.”
‘I felt like I was back in Italy’: Andrea Vignali (right), with Davide Bonadiman. The pair co-own Al Dente, a modern Italian enoteca in Carlton, Melbourne. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
Vignali and Sanna are among the wave of young Italians who have moved to Australia since the early 2000s, some permanently, others temporarily, many motivated by Europe’s current economic woes. Their numbers are modest compared to Australia’s post-war Italian influx – there were around 63,490 long-term and migrant arrivals between 2001 and 2021 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, compared to an estimated 338,624 Italian migrants between 1951 and 1972. – but they have increased in recent years.
There are signs that the trend will continue. “We’re seeing a lot more requests for information about living and working in Australia from listeners in Italy,” says Magica Fossati, producer and radio host at SBS Italian.
You only have to look at restaurant menus to see how second- and third-generation Italian-Australians and more recent Italian arrivals are shaping the city. Creamed carbonara (a real crime in Rome) is out; Tuscan schiacciata, Emilian gnocco fritto and Italo-Oz dishes – such as Al Dente’s saffron spaghetti with Moreton Bay bugs and warrigal greens – are in.
For Fossati, this culinary evolution reflects a broader coming of age. “In the past, Italian migrants had to respond to an idea of Italy that was acceptable, so they created an Italian identity and cuisine that was palatable to non-Italian Australians. Nowadays, local tastes are more discerning and many Australians have been to Italy , so younger generations can afford to be more regional and adventurous.”
‘Everyone introduces themselves around the coffee machine and information is shared about anything from Medicare to taxes’: Sanna’s cafe has become an unofficial resource center for new Italian migrants.
“From the outside, people tend to see Melbourne’s Italian community as more uniform, but we’re actually a very diverse group.”
When Sardinian-born Sanna first arrived in Melbourne in 2012, he spent hours listening to the stories of post-war migrants at Thornbury Espresso Bar, a time-warped restaurant that hosts long sessions of maps, memories and friendly slang between southerners and northerners.
“They all talked about how difficult it was when they first arrived,” says Sanna. “It was a strange country with different food and customs, a language that many did not understand.”
Creamed carbonara is out, but Italo-Oz flavor medleys – such as Al Dente’s saffron spaghetti with Moreton Bay bugs and warrigal greens – are in. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
Like any new migrant community, they stuck together, established their own businesses and social clubs and created a sense of home. Sanna experienced their ingenuity first hand. “Whatever I needed, there would be someone at the bar willing to help. A job, a car – everything started with an old man with contacts.”
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For newly arrived Italians, Sanna’s own cafe has become an unofficial resource center. “Newcomers often come in. Everyone introduces themselves around the coffee machine and information is shared about anything from Medicare to taxes,” he says.
But there are also some strong generational differences. “Some of the older migrants still think of an Italy that no longer exists. They think there are no tattoos, no gay people. They use words we don’t use anymore. Time stopped when they moved to Australia.”
When Fossati first visited Melbourne in 1997, a local Italian-Australian family was shocked to learn she was living in a university share house in Turin. “They just assumed that every Italian still lived at home until they got married.”
In the digital age, a click of a mouse can bridge the 14,000 km between Australia and Italy, and Italians speak of their homeland in the present tense, not the past.
Despite the next-gen energy, Melbourne’s Italian-born population is actually shrinking, down from 80,109 in 2001 to 58,081 in 2021. Around 71% of this group is over 65.
‘A job, a car – it all started with an old man with contacts’: Sanna on the ingenuity of the community that gathers at Thornbury Espresso Bar. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
Nowhere is this felt more acutely than at Melbourne’s multitude of Italian social clubs. “The people who run these places are now often in their 80s. They tell me, ‘I can’t do this anymore, it’s killing me’,” says Sonya Velo, vice president of the Veneto Club in Bulleen, north-east of Melbourne.
For younger Italian-born Melburnians, these places are no longer important meeting places. Sanna says: “We connect online and at aperitivi, parties, special events.” When Vignali moved to Australia in 2016, the Facebook group “Italian in Melbourne” was invaluable in making new connections, including a woman who lived on the same street in his hometown of Robbiate, Lombardy.
The marginalization of Italian social clubs is an issue close to Velo’s heart – her father was a founding member of the club she now runs (at the time it was only men). “I spoke to the media, to the Italian consul general. Someone needs to host a forum so we can work out how to take our clubs into the 21st century. Nobody wants to stick around, and that will be the death of some clubs,” she says.
Gino, Luigi, Steve and Joseph play cards at Thornbury Espresso Bar while Frank looks on. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
For now, Veneto Club is bucking the trend. Last year a membership drive had a record number of entries, all Australian born locals.
This desire for reconnection is something Fossati and her SBS Italian colleagues also notice. “We see second and third generation Italian-Australians becoming more curious about their own roots. “Many try to raise their children bilingually, even though they themselves did not grow up speaking Italian,” she says. “They go to Italian playgroups, enroll their children in Italian courses. Some are actively looking for Italian-speaking babysitters.”
In Velo’s case, reconnection also came in sugar-coated form. “When I was young, I wanted Arnott’s biscuits like my friends, not mum’s homemade crostoli. Now every Thursday I teach [people] how to make it.”