Soggy clouds blanket Melbourne’s skyline and I trudge along Swanston Street looking for an afternoon espresso. Beyond the boutique bistros, flanked by Bourke and Crossley Streets, is my destination – Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar. It’s at this very spot that Pellegrini’s, Melbourne’s coffee-drinking institution, made its debut by serving shots from freshly ground coffee in 1954. It's where Pellegrini's shipped its first espresso machine into Melbourne, from the old country, and served coffee to tea-indoctrinated Melburnians. Now, coffee drinking is as much a part of Melbourne life as is breathing.
Bourke Street has seen its fair share of facelifts over the years, yet Pellegrini’s wears its unchanged façade and interiors proudly – dark brown wooden counter, body-height windows, a checker-board floor and walls awash with ageing yellow paint. A shelf above the counter cradles personal momentos, signed celebrity posters, vinyls, and framed pictures; a collection spanning the decades from which a little-known shopfront morphed into one of Melbourne’s historical coffee destinations.
A waiter calls my order to his barista with a thick Italian accent: ‘Sergio! One espresso! Grazie!!’ There’s a clattering of teaspoons as couples slurp on spaghetti. The espresso machine’s motor rips into gear. Beans grind away wildly and the air intensifies. Light conversation and hushed voices carry on, unperturbed.
It’s alleged that Pellegrini’s owned Melbourne’s very first espresso machine, a claim hotly debated by commentators, customers and Melburnian café owners alike. It’s clear that Italian cafés shot up in Melbourne during this time and the start of commercially-roasted coffee naturally coincided. Between 1953 and 1955, a small string of cafés flung open their doors, just like Pellegrini’s – Don Camillo in Victoria Street, Lexington Café in Exhibition Street and Universita Café in Lygon Street; all claiming to own some of Melbourne’s first espresso machines. In 1954, Italian migrants Agostino Monaci, Vic Panatieri and Sergio Coperchini started their company, Mocopan, to deal in spices, smallgoods and coffee. Now, Mocopan is one of Australia’s iconic coffee brands.
Despite this haze over Melbourne’s coffee history, Pellegrini’s still stands as an ancestral locale where Melbourne’s coffee culture brewed, one ground bean at a time. Pellegrini’s has since served its coffee with lashings of genuine hospitality and simple, Italian home-style cooking. The Sunday lunch crowd is sitting on barstools lining the counter already devouring its share.
My steaming espresso hovers its way across the counter. I stir its rich crema before stealing a small sip. The coffee is as black as death itself but warms me immediately.
My waiter throws me a lingering gaze and a smile emerges from underneath his manicured moustache. I selfishly point to the cake cabinet. ‘Blueberry pie?’ I nod enthusiastically. ‘You want cream, Bella?’ He piles the cream on a slice of pie that’s wide and crusty. Double thick cream slides off his old wooden spoon. Recently arrived customers point to the bounty of more baked treats sitting behind the glass – apple pastries, baked lemon pie and sponge cake.
The sun peeks from behind the clouds momentarily. Cups and plates lay bare along the counter. Only an idle serve of spaghetti, half-eaten, is shepherded back to the kitchen. Its previous owner looks over-full yet content. Customers remain firmly on their barstools.
Generations of Pellegrinis have brewed their livelihood here and generations of Melburnian families have drunk it wholeheartedly. This is Melbourne’s coffee history in the flesh and its lustful heart is still beating strongly.
‘Another espresso, Bella?’ I politely decline as I pass my waiter a $10 note. He calls out one final attempt to sell me another espresso before bidding me farewell. ‘Ciao Bella!’
Enjoy a coffee and take a sip of Melbourne's coffee history for yourself:
Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar – 66 Bourke
Don Camillo – 215 Victoria Street, West Melbourne.
Universita Café – 257 Lygon Street, Carlton.