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Elegy for Sisto Malaspina

  • 15 November 2018


The flowers, rich blooms, kaleidoscopic in colour, provided decorative comfort. They seemed utterly democratic in statement, much like a man who was said by Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvation Army to regard the homeless ‘as special as Russell Crowe’. This sense of common ground was hardly surprising, though it should not deceive. As a customer of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar on Bourke Street, Nina Wellington-Iser remembered Sisto Malaspina: ‘No bookings and no unreasoned refusals.’

The mood was melancholy but stoic. Malaspina, who took over Pellegrini’s in 1974 from the founding brothers, had been slain. This man of coffee’s rites and rituals was felled by the blade of Hassan Khalif Shire Ali after he crashed his vehicle, laden with gas bottles, in the Melbourne CBD. According to eyewitnesses, Malaspina was stabbed on going over to the burning car to offer assistance.

For most, it was befuddlement at the death of a person viewed as the charming figure who stuck to a service fashioned by generations. Pellegrini’s had been the first Melbourne establishment to make espresso coffee properly. (It is worth noting the late-to-the-game nature of Melbourne’s now legendary coffee culture.)

Pellegrini’s remains a place pillowed in time, and to that end, revolted against the modern, intrusive niceties of manicured living. Its service lacks pomp and ceremony, emphasising, under Malaspina’s reign, frank goodness. The venue treats a species of coarseness as charm. The food (you can at least see it as it finds its way onto a fork) is modest but tasty. Many eat in the expectation that they will make a rapid exit, chalking up the notables on their to-do guide. The regulars remain like feted gods, knowing they would not receive Sisto’s teasing glare.

Malaspina was a reminder that, when a populace is touched, distinctions vanish and blend. There are bouquets that guard the entrance to the café with solemn beauty, these guards and tributes of leaves, stalks and petals. There are written messages that accompany these bouquets like sprigs of kindly decoration; you feel an urge to see the emotion scrawled on them, their words the bridge that affection affords.

There have been marked physical tributes: the convoy of Vespas organised by Julie Pond of the Vespa Club Melbourne making their own commemorative role was moving. Then came a violinist sweetly stroking his tunes in memory before the establishment.


"Letters to various papers are also filled with reflections that celebrate in mourning. Kim Sutherland