Cafe Bellino and the Demise of the Local Italian Restaurant.

Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.
Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.

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.

Young Italian Camerierie at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick
Italian Cameriere at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick

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.

Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.
Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.

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

31 thoughts on “Cafe Bellino and the Demise of the Local Italian Restaurant.”

  1. We are lucky in Sydney, we have had a number of the “new wave” of Italian migrants – young couples in their 30’s – come here in search of a life without the economic and political uncertainty of Italy – come here and open some wonderful casual eateries. May they last for decades!

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    1. We also have our fair share of these new Italians and I am delighted to see them re-establish local Italian restaurants. Melbourne is very Italian still. My beef is about wine mark ups as well as the oldies going. Their places have a certain nostalgic appeal.

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  2. Nostalgic prickled my eyes as I perused your words and photos. Making an immediate connection to an Italian restaurant I loved many years ago, Conca D’Oro Pizza in Gladesville. Rarely then did I eat takeaway pizza, it was worth the short drive to eat in, like with family. After I moved, I didn’t get there much until 5 years later, babysitting my 2 year old Godson who lived nearby I went there to get us pizza, and they remembered me 🙂 Godson, a picky eater according to his mother, loved the pizza.
    I now live near King Street Newtown, where many cafes, restaurants, cooks & staff come and go. It’s trendy & fun & there’s lots of new things but there’s not many places you can go to eat that have that home away from home feel, and I miss it.
    It’s sad that Cafe Bellino is closing, and so many of their ilk. Hopefully the big shoes they leave will be filled.

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    1. Nostalgic Italian places are like that- we remember them from the 70s and 80s and want them to go on forever. Kids love pizza and good to hear that your godson went for one- its a great treat to take all the littles out for a pizza.
      I think Bellino will be replaced by yet another minimalist bar or inner grunge breakfast hangout. I can’t stand breakfast coffee all day places- waste of money.

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  3. Oh Francesca what a shame … I can just imagine. How horrid to be ushered into a place with a DJ and then not permitted your wine! I would burn the rubber off my soles getting out of there! Damn .. Those pizzas look fantastic too. I’d be zipping in there if I was still in Melbourne 😉

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  4. Many locals here boycott the overpriced poorly run very average food joints in Bridge Road. They seem to have no long term vision at all. There is definitely a cynical greed in the way many of them operate. A couple of the better places are having locals nights early in the week, lower prices BYO, no corkage, you just have to show your drivers licence. It’s brilliant. Sad the oldies are going

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    1. I like the way you locals deal with overpriced places. And as for the better places having a locals night, love that too- wish the idea would take off around the traps. Even on locals night at the St Andrews Pizzeria ( back in the sticks) called ‘A boy named Sue’ the wine still remains at the $40 mark, making one pizza ( not quite enough for 2 hungry people) and a bottle of red around $60 or more. just not right!

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  5. Tis indeed a tragedy. Not only are we losing such great food and contributors to the community but the opportunity for families to go out together for a treat and ‘splurge’ without breaking the bank. Great social skills to teach and share with kids. Don’t suppose you can beat going through the drive through and everyone sitting in their own room or with headphones on while you eat the packaging flavoured meal. Really does sound appealing (Blughh! Fingers down throat). Very sad.

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    1. I can visualise that scene you paint, scrambling fingers in a bag of more little packets and boxes, landfill, eating stuff hat tastes like shit while continuing to watch an ipad,phone whatever, Foul night off cooking.

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  6. Oh damn, that makes me wish to have children who would be interested in picking up the trade. No, I’m not Italian and I don’t cook, but you know, I suffer to see when such damage is being made! I really hope you find a lovely place that you could call home away from home and is NOT closing.

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  7. Sorry!! Internet issues and fat fingers!! I meant to say $15 is a bargain these days for an authentic pizza so it’s a wonder they can even break even. Most of these new hipster places charge $20+ for a pizza and there’s no love gone into it at all. It sounds like Sydney Road/ Brunswick Street is changing a lot.

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  8. So many things to love about a restaurant that you feel at home in. I am sorry that you are loosing yours. Do you think the large number of huge apartments in Brunswick, especially along Lygon St, is a big factor?

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    1. yes, that is having a huge affect on the style of restaurant. The old folk can now make a bit of money from the sales or leasing of buildings they bought years ago. Others, like all the cheaper middle eastern places, will be pushed out to Coburg or further. Apartment dwellers have certain dining needs and so their presence in the thousands changes the landscape in more ways than one.

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  9. We have had this conversation recently, too, wine prices, soulless cafes and the very labour intensive nature of running a good restaurant/cafe/bistro. It is not work I could do, though I wish I had the energy for it! We do appreciate a well run eating establishment with modest prices and friendly service over the pricier, fancier options, though they are fun once in a while, more for the experience than for the food, sadly (my humble opinion). We might just make it under the 80 days when we stop in Melbourne in October 7-8. Don loves a good pizza but I’m no longer able to eat pizza and pasta. Would they have ‘melanzana alla parmigiana’ or something similar that I could eat, do you think? Nice Post Francesca, am reading it on my brand new dazzling computer!! x

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    1. I, too, have this conversation often. Sometimes I am happy with a cheap Vietnamese meal as much as anything else. But yesterday we did try a ‘hatted’ place in Richmond and it was rather nice. The problem with the middle of the road places is the mark up on ordinary wine. 400% mark up is ridiculous. And I hate paying for boring food. So it’s pizza or Vietnamese for me, or, top end dining as a splurge.
      I’m popping back to Bellino on Wednesday and will look at the chalked menu on the wall and let you know.
      Stopping in Melbourne for two days? That’s a flying visit. If you aren’t too rushed, we can meet you there, although I know you may have a list of things to catch up on. x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We are coming back from OS and stopping in Melbourne to get in a better time zone before coming home! I will definitely let you know if it looks like we can meet. The trip in the US looks to be rather busy so depends how tired we both are. Would love to meet you! And yes, I agree, for me a meal out is sometimes a cook’s night off as much as anything, but I don’t necessarily want to eat fancy food or especially pay fancy prices when I know we don’t have to.

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  10. So so sad to lose such a wonderful tradition. Unfortunately this is happening more and more as these lovely people age and retire and their children have chosen different career paths.

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  11. A wonderful pizza and pasta cafe/restaurant just opened down the road from our place. It is run by young people in their 20’s & 30’s mainly, who give you a nice smile when you sit down or take away your pizza. We have done both, sat in and taken away. The pizzas are of a very high standard – it seems that they have a lot of experience, and the menu is rather varied. Our large take-away pizza was only $13 this week (we pick them up). So far they are very cheap and reasonable but they are just waiting on their Liquor Licence. Will be interesting to see how much they charge for a bottle! The cafe is in Strathmore and it is small but good. Stay tuned to see if a bottle of beaujolais is outrageous or not!

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    1. It is sad to see these places close. Nice daggy Italian places that aren’t all hard light and hard surfaced and gentrified. No chance of me taking over Rach: it would be an exhausting life , being open from 10- to 10.

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  12. Sad to see the renowned Melbourne eating scene suffering. brisbane never had such a coffee/eating culture like melbourne, but it sure is also suffering from inner city highrise apartments forcing locals out into the sticks. great article.

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