“My they are cold,” said Sisto Malaspina as he grabbed my hands on that brisk winter morning back in June this year.
I had come into the Espresso Bar not only because my hands were indeed cold but also as I was in need of a coffee. I had just launched my writing career and was also on the hunt for a story. I knew Pellegrini’s was synonymous with Melbourne and its co-owner, the much revered scarf wearing barista Sisto, whose hospitality and charisma had warmed the hands and minds of Melbournians for decades, would be a gem of a subject should he be thinking of retirement. Maybe he had a story to tell.
“This is the drink I’ve been making for 80-year-old Averil, who has been coming to Pellegrini’s for years now,” Sisto said. “Drink it, it will do you good!” Sisto had handed me a tea with a good squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon full of honey.
“What are you reading?” he asked. I had just bought a copy of Patti Smith’s M Train. “She turned 72 this year,” I said. “Oh almost as old as me,” Sisto chuckled. “I’ve been working here for over forty years and hardly missed a day’s work, but when you enjoy what you do, well that’s not work.” he added.
Sisto passed me a piece of marble cake – the sort of no fuss number my grandmother used to make. It was accompanied by a good squirt of aerated cream.
As I sat perched on one of the red iconic vinyl bar stools, the ebb and flow of Pellegrini’s custom began. Two men entered and sat either side of me. One was suited up Collins street style. The other wore jeans and a T-Shirt. He was a tourist from Perth yet knew Sisto well. “I’ve been visiting Pellegrinis for years….you don’t get this sort of service anymore,” he said.
They had both popped in for one of Paul’s coffees. Paul Panetta, the long-time barista at Pellegrini’s, has been working at the eatery for forty one years now. “I was just a boy when I started to work with Sisto”, Paul said.
Paul placed the coffees on the bar. No fancy motifs here. When you order a Latte at the establishment that brought Melbourne its first coffee machine, you take your coffee the way Paul serves it: strong with a good shot of gusto. Motifs are for the smashed-avo set.
It’s not easy writing about nothing. That’s what a cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream. Vaguely handsome, intensely laconic, he was balancing on a folding chair, leaning backwards, his Stetson brushing the edge of the dun-coloured exterior of a lone Café.
I had always loved Patti Smith’s prose. As I looked up the men had gone and there was a woman sitting beside me tapping on her phone while savouring a bowl of Pellegrini’s spaghetti. “Do you come here for the food?” I asked? “The bolognese is good, but I mainly come here for my daily dose of happiness,” the woman said. “I’ve had a horror day and now I’ve got a smile on my face……that’s why I come here and will keep coming back here,” the woman said.
Finally, the custom ebbed so I could explore the possibility of a story. There had been many articles written about this iconic Melbournian eatery so I knew it would need a unique angle. “Are you thinking of retiring?” I asked. “No, not yet,” Sisto rebuked. We agreed to leave it for now.
On that note and without thinking, I left the Café. I was already 20 metres down Bourke Street when I realised I had left without paying. Shocked, I turned around and belted back up to the eatery. When I entered, Sisto gestured for me to hold out my hands: “Oh that’s good, your hands are warm now, warm hands mean the soul is nourished,”he said.
When I asked him how much I owed him for the cake and tea with honey, he said. “You cannot pay for a gift from the heart my dear”.