Dean Martin sings ‘Cha cha cha d’amour” in the background; locals drop in for a quick chat or a coffee, groups greet each other warmly with ‘auguri‘ or buona sera‘. Introductions are swift- meet Dino or Toni- as working men greet their friends and gather for an antipasto or a hearty bowl of pasta and a glass of rosso. Poking one’s head in to greet the chef at work in the semi open kitchen seems to be the norm. The style is distinctly Italo- Australiano and I feel very much at home here. Front of house is a charming young waiter from Milano, no doubt working on a 457 working visa, like so many other young Italian camerieri in Melbourne, and the pizzas are truly excellent, dare I say, the best I have had in a long while. At $13- $15 for a large hand crafted thinly crusted pizza, they are a steal. But here’s the sad news. Cafe Bellino in Victoria Street, Brunswick has less than 90 days left to run! Like so many others in the district, the couple responsible for the excellent cooking here is about to retire. The signora is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren: restaurant life is hard work, she explains. The young Milanese waiter hopes to be able to work for the new lessee, but no one really knows what kind of business will replace the beautiful little Cafe Bellino.
It’s a common story around the inner suburbs of Melbourne, as more Italian couples reach retirement age and sell up. A recent closure was Cafe Mingo in Sydney road, when Jo, his wife and helpers retired. Their simple Italian restaurant became home away from home for many. I loved the way that Jo would slide over a complimentary plate full of sweet wafers and a tall bottle of grappa at the end of a meal. Sweet memories. The place has since become an Indian restaurant. It’s always empty, there is no licence and no ambience. It has lost its soul. Last week when we dropped into La Bussola Ristorante e Pizzeria in Lygon Street east, we found that retirement had struck again! La Bussola, home of the simple pizza and cheap pasta, a warm retro space where you could bring your own wine or buy a caraffa di vino da tavola for $10, has become the Compass Pizza Bar. The emphasis is now on the word “bar” as this seems to be how the young Brunswick cafe managers make their money. It’s all about mark up and less about the food. We were ushered into the old retro space but shock horror, a head-phoned DJ had been installed, playing extremely loud music at 6pm. We were told curtly that our BYO bottle was not welcome, and no, we couldn’t pay extra for corkage or glasses. We promptly left. Another wonderful family run institution had become gentrified and in my humble opinion, wrecked. Crap bottled wine, of unknown source and vintage, was offered at a starting price of $32 a bottle. Most were more costly.
The simple joy of stepping out for a pizza or a bowl of pasta with a shared a bottle of wine is quickly vanishing. I have nothing against licensed restaurants. Most of the old style BYO places hold full licences as well, offering the diner a choice. What disturbs me are the ridiculous mark ups on wine at these new hipster places. Take a bottle of ordinary wine that retails for $8 and mark it up to $35 or more. Why? Isn’t turnover and ‘bums on seats’ more important in these leaner times? Cheap, affordable wine, as well as BYO wine, has made the Melbourne suburban restaurant scene dynamic and lively in the past. These practices enabled families to regularly dine out at their local restaurant, introducing children to restaurant life and the culture of food. Simple places with prices to match. Hipster joints with their huge mark ups on wine will attract only one type of customer, young affluent singles and childless couples. A sad trend indeed, and one that would never happen in France!
If you’re in the area, footloose and fancy free or loitering with intent and in need of a drink, a coffee, or a bowl of something authentically Italian, try Cafe Bellino, 281 Victoria St, Brunswick VIC 3056. ( Just around the corner from Sydney Road). Open from 10 am to 10 pm. Closed on Sunday. You only have 80 days left.
Cha cha cha d’amour
Take this song to my lover
Shoo shoo little bird
Go and find my love
Cha cha cha d’amour
Serenade at her window
Shoo shoo little bird
Sing my song of love