Elegy for Sisto Malaspina



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.’

Floral tribute outside Pellegrini's bar

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 wrote to The Age of Malaspina’s engaging interest in the philosophy of gardening, crop rotation and a love of opera. Guests from other parts of the country were netted by the Sisto allure."


What is so urgent here is not a sense of being morbid. Nor, in the main, was there even a vengeful note. This was unalloyed grief, unimpaired by manipulation and political exploitation. The messages are worth noting; they genuinely tug heartstrings. There are a few in Mandarin; there are love hearts sprouting at the corner of Bourke and Russell Street.

Then there is a note from Pellegrini’s staff heavy with gratitude and yet not sodden with grief. ‘You always looked after us like family’, it says. ‘You always said to have fun at work because we all worked so hard.’ Lucia from the kitchen reflected on Sisto being her ‘big brother’ rather than a boss. ‘I would tell him everything.’

Letters to various papers are also filled with reflections that celebrate in mourning. Kim Sutherland wrote to The Age of Malaspina’s engaging interest in the philosophy of gardening, crop rotation and a love of opera. Guests from other parts of the country were netted by the Sisto allure.

Sigmund Freud claimed, in looking at post-Victorian attitudes to death before the first shots were fired during World War I, that, ‘we showed an unmistakable tendency to put death to one side, to eliminate it from life. We tried to hush it up.’ Do not speak too much of the grim reaper’s fruits; best leave them to their journey across the Styx.

In the case of Malaspina’s passing, death is not hushed up and shunned into insignificance. Instead, the living memory throbs with a generosity of spirit that only character, and longevity gives. There is an elegiac note to the remarks and reflections. While not exactly on point, it is a reminder that the celebrated figure, local or otherwise, should be seen in rich lashings of commemorative bliss rather than sombre notes of depression. On reopening, Pellegrini’s co-owner Nino Pangrazio served gratis long blacks. ‘It was Sisto’s favourite and will be in memory of him.’

There is uplifting celebration amidst the grief; there are the grafted memories of gruff service retold, a no nonsense view of the world that gave time to customers and even more time to Pellegrini’s. Death did shock, but the memory of life richly lived persists, stubbornly passionate for those who knew the man. Time, suggested Ian Oshlack in his letter of tribute to The Age, to classify Pellegrini’s as National Trust property, ‘Melbourne’s kitchen’ and ultimate memorial for Sisto.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.


Main image: Floral tribute outside Pellegrini's bar (Alpha/Flickr)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Sisto Malaspina, Pellegrini's, tribute



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Existing comments

Thank you for this heartwarming reflection on the tragic death of a man who brought so much life to so many. May Sisto inspire us Melbournians to emulate his spirit.
Corrie van den Bosch | 15 November 2018

I once worked at a meal centre for homeless people in Fitzroy. Walking along Brunswick St one morning I met a young man I knew. He said he was on his way for coffee. "Not at your place", he said, with a friendly grin. "I may be homeless, but I'm Brunswick St homeless. I'm going to Pellegrini's!". He knew he'd be welcome there. Thank you, Sisto Malaspina, and may God welcome you, too.
Joan Seymour | 15 November 2018


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