NIAF President and COO John M. Viola shares his current travels around Australia, continuing his exploration of Sydney’s Italian American community, in the second of a five-part series on Pensieri Italo-Americani.
As I continued my walk, despite the high recommendations I had received from many locals, I had to put my head down and walk past Mezzapicca Cakes, a Sicilian bakery founded in 1952 and seen as the entry point for Italian baked goods into Sydney.
My next stop was the much talked about “Italian Forum,” a 1990s urban renewal project designed to emulate an Italian piazza, with its central fountain and statue of Dante ringed by high-end shops and restaurants, all unfolding under the red-ochre clock face that reminds one of the Madre Patria.
But, unlike how the online write-ups and guidebooks described it, the piazza I found wasn’t a buzzing hive of Italian activity, but rather a place seemingly abandoned. What was once an Italian Cultural Center and 350-seat theater is now an acting school (I was told by the shocked, young hipster girl, when I interrupted her class) . The apartments and businesses ringing the public space were empty or shuttered.
The business owners that I could find told me of a place suffering not from a lack of interest or Italian-ness, but a case of severe mismanagement by ownership. Many told me that less than 10 years ago the center was booming, a magnet to Italo-Australians from all over Sydney and a real engine for the preservation and evolution of our culture here in Australia.
It reminds one that while sophisticated urban planning does sometimes reinvigorate our old neighborhoods (San Diego’s booming Little Italy comes to mind as a success story), those efforts need to be managed as much for cultural success as for economic success.
On my way out of the Italian Forum, I stumbled into The Merchant of Venice, a beautiful gift shop owned by Maria Saraceno and specializing in murano glass, hand-made masks, and other treasures imported directly from Venice. Maria and one of her customers chatted with me for quite some time about the current state of the neighborhood and the Forum. Maria recommended I finish my trip at a local landmark—the Bar Sport.
A short walk away, Bar Sport has a special place in the heart of the Italian community here in Sydney. It was the first establishment in the city to import a real coffee machine from Italy, singlehandedly introducing caffè italiano and its many fine derivatives to this part of Australia!
What I found inside was a familiar scene to many of us: Calcio on the TV and tables full of Italian men sitting and chatting away over arancini and focaccia; foam stained espresso cups, emptied in one confident gulp, laying almost in piles on every table; and a confident barista manning a new machine and overseeing the ocean of calm socializing.
Famished from the days walk and too comfortable in familiar surroundings to fight the urge to keep to my new healthy diet (I have to get in my tuxedo for the Gala after all), I decided to treat myself to sweet caffè and a focaccia (or pizza bianca) sandwich.
The bread was a near perfect emulation of the Roman specialty, light and chewy and good to the teeth. Inside were two thin layers of real Italian mortadella and fresh ricotta cheese, a few pieces of sun-dried tomato, and vinegar artichokes, which made for the perfect lunch as I finally sat down to read my copy of the day’s La Fiamma, a gift from Dona earlier in the morning.
When I got up and asked the woman behind the bar if she minded my taking a few pictures, she pointed to a bloke (I’m picking it up) in a New York Yankees cap and suggested I ask him. I introduced myself and handed over my card, and even pulled my own well-worn Yankees cap out of my bag as a sign of my good will and good credentials. He introduced himself to me simply as Joe. “Giuseppe,” he told me right away, “but Joe to everyone here.”
I still don’t know if Joe owns Bar Sport or is simply a community icon in his own right, but after discovering that both of our families came from the Cilento–Vallo di Diano area of Italy, Joe invited me to sit at his table with him and his four friends to discuss what I was doing in Australia and the state of the Italo-Australian community.
Joe was fascinated by the programs we run at NIAF and gave me some insight into what he saw as an important time for his own community. As he saw it, Australians are a later migration than our Italian American community, so many are more closely related to their family and life back in Italy, though these connections are also being challenged by time and assimilation.
Joe mentioned that he was active in trying to create new ways for young Italian Australians to relate to their culture and their community. A fan of Juventus (I had to forgive him), Joe and his friends created the club at the bar so that young people could find some access to our culture by watching Italian Lega A Calcio (soccer). He said that the 2006 World Cup victory (much like many of us experienced in our communities in the United States) was a bellwether moment for the Italian community and Sydney.
All eyes were on Norton Street and everyone wanted to access the exciting World Cup final through Italian eyes. He lauded the fact that the game can bring young Italians an entry point into their culture, and we exchanged many concepts around bringing young people closer to our history and who we are. After nearly an hour of reminiscing and sharing the similarities of our upbringing all of these thousands of miles apart, I had to say my ciaos and head to my train to Canberra.
I was not surprised by what I found during my brief time on Norton Street. On the contrary, it is a community in many ways like our own. They are people who recognize how special our culture and our immigrant experiences are, and who do all they can to make sure that it’s lived in a real and vibrant way and passed on with respect to the younger generations now growing up in different neighborhoods and social conditions.
Although I am greatly looking forward to participating in a conference of academic and social gravity, there’s really nothing quite like wasting a day safely nestled amongst the familiar sounds, smells and sights of a Little Italy. For me, I think happiness is a piping hot espresso and a good Italian newspaper on a crisp day in a neighborhood where you know the people truly LOVE being Italian.