EXACTLY HOW BIG IS MELBOURNE'S 'LITTLE' ITALY

It seems the wave of Italian migration to Australia, particularly Melbourne, just keeps getting bigger. Postwar migration saw Australia’s first Italians forming small communities around the city of Melbourne, creating “Little Italy” on Lygon street, Carlton. So, it makes sense that Carlton is the location to hold the annual Italian Festa, which unfortunately, draws fewer crowds every year. (Photo- Source freemelbourne.com.au)

Growing up Italian-Australian, Lygon street was the place to be immersed in ‘Italian’ culture as we knew it. Now though, I feel that unfortunately, Carlton’s Lygon Street is losing its cultura.  

Lygon Street has seen the closing down of many 1950s family-owned businesses. While the northern end has seen the old  (Brunetti, Ti Amo and Donati’s) blending with new, contemporary Italian outlets (DOC, Pidapipo, and King and Godfree’s), the vibrant Italian culture seems to stop there. Further South near Piazza Italia, classic Australian-Italian restaurants are empty and simply outdated. Instead, other ethnic cuisines, pop-up shops and Narghile bars are appearing.  

Notably missing from the Italian Festa participants, is the younger generation. The Festa seems desperate for a revival. We are sick of listening to Al Bano’s ‘Felicita’ and Toto Cutugno’s ‘Italiano Vero’, and we watch on as the Johnston Street Latin Festival draws a younger, more lively crowd.

It is clear that it is not only Carlton’s high rent or lack of parking, but a lack of knowledge for what Italian culture is today that is pushing Italian culture far away and into suburban hubs.

Best Sicilian cannoli? Head Northwest to Avondale Heights ‘Cannoli Bar’.   Napoletan sfogliatella? Try the new ‘Pulcinella’ on Sydney Road. Coburg’s ‘I Pugliesi’ will satisfy your Salentino cravings, or head even further North to ‘Abruzzo Lab’ for some classic arrosticini. At these new, vibrant venues, it is possible to feel a little bit closer to Italy, with authenticity always being the special of the day – and pineapple definitely not being an option on pizza.  

But is it okay to celebrate what was? Old powerhouses such as Mediterranean wholesalers and Franco Cozzo’s furniture store are still well alive to live the ‘good old days’ if desired. If you want to jump into a time capsule to Nonna’s birth town, cultural associations still exist and host numerous events monthly, from the Abruzzo Club, to the Reggio Calabria and Vizzini Club, the Tarantella is always welcomed, and this is a beautiful concept. But for how much longer can these associations be managed for?  

The Italian Festa must be a representation of what Italian culture is today, which is, frankly, far from the gender stereotypes and typical representations of Italo-Australian culture which mostly stemmed from Post WWII migration stories.  

We are continuously exposed to a small percentage and a small aspect of Italian history that is reinforced negatively and not for the benefit of today’s youth. This history is precious and held closely in the hearts of young and old, but we should be acknowledging it, not emulating it. It is simply not relevant to bring into a modern society. It is easy to offend new Italian migrants with the out-dated visions that many Australians have of their culture, perpetuated by out-dated cultural offerings in Lygon Street.  

I stood amongst the crowd during the performances and comedy acts during November’s Italian Festa. There were awkward, uncomfortable expressions on many faces. The ‘jokes’, about cultural stereotypes need to be kept at home for personal reminiscing moments.  

A call for modern Italian music was desired. The community is growing! Being from Italy doesn’t necessarily mean you came from a small town with little opportunity for work. Being from Italy takes into account North, South, young, old and blended ethnic backgrounds. You can say one is blessed to be born Italian, but have a think about why this is so, and what it means to wear this badge. Who are you representing? What are you emulating?  

On the other hand, if you stayed behind after the show, you would have seen a mob of young Italian Australians outside Il Stuzzicchino, down Lygon’s southern end; dancing along to a three-boy show of organetto and tamburello players. Older Italian men even joined in the fun.  

This is the beauty of Italian culture, togetherness and understanding cultural pastimes and celebrating them for their underlying meaning – friends, family and life; regardless of age, gender and status.  

As a global community, Melbourne’s history is constantly being influenced and touched by new stories and experiences. Moving forward together, one should simply look around and appreciate the passion of Italian culture that is being celebrated every day in almost every corner of this city, not just one day a year in Carlton.