Pizza, Pasta and a Vision for a New Australian Life
When the sun sets over Carlton
And the moonlight floods the streets
All those pizza places and spaced out places
They all get on the beat
Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo)
Okay, okay, they were writing about cruising for drugs, but Skyhooks, the seminal 70’s Aussie glam rock band who wrote these lyrics, still captured the feel of a street that has become larger than life in the history of Melbourne – Carlton’s Lygon Street.
A street bursting to overflowing with history, Lygon Street started life as a Jewish ghetto, then morphed into a hub for Italian migrants: the first port of call when they got off the boat from war torn Italy post WWII, looking for a better life.
These immigrants created a cultural and food legacy – “Little Italy”. And this is where the first Australian pizzeria, Toto’s Pizza House, was born on 7th July 1961 at 101 Lygon Street, and where it has remained ever since.
It’s hard to imagine an Australia, particularly a Melbourne, without pizza. Melbourne is considered the pizza capital of the world, and mega-corporations such as Pizza Hut and Dominos have saturated the market. But prior to 1961, if you wanted to dine out or take away, well…. you kind of didn’t. The Aussie staple was meat and three veg, and there was not a zucchini or even the smallest of garlic cloves hiding in any greengrocers. Our love affair with olive oil, pasta and the dreamiest of espressos was not even a twinkling in the eye of any Aussie brought up to revere the humble potato and lamb chop as the height of culinary excellence.
Yes, we have a lot to thank those Italian immigrants for. Spaghetti Bolognese (spag bol in Aussie-ese) is probably close to our national dish today and seriously – could you imagine a life without coffee? Strange to think now that they were subjected to racial vilification relentlessly, being labelled “wogs”, “dagos”, and “eyeties”. Their contribution to the culture and cuisine of Australia is enormous (perhaps something to remember next time you hear or think that migrants couldn’t possibly contribute anything to Australian life, and in fact actively destroy it. We could all still be a nation of tea drinkers chowing down on a pile of mashed spuds).
But back to pizza.
When Salvatore Della Bruna established Toto’s in 1961 with Franco Fera, he also invented the classic ‘Aussie Pizza’ – yes, you know the one: pineapple and ham. Salvatore came from a long line of pizza makers near Naples, and admitted that his own father probably would have killed him if he had have known. You didn’t mess with traditional pizza back in Italy. Salvatore said in an interview with Melbourne newspaper The Age back in 1982: “Did I come here to make pizza? No, I would have stayed in Italy if I wanted to make pizza and spaghetti, because my family had the business from my great grandfather. My father told me: ‘You can go to Australia. You can go to America. You will end up with pizza in your hand because that’s the only thing you can do!’”
As the evolution of pizza in Australia travelled further and further from the Italian models, Salvatore’s father probably wore out the wood turning over in his grave, despairing of the overloaded, soggy varieties that have become our staples. With traditional Italian pizza, less is definitely more: think the classic Margherita combo of tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil as a prime example.
In 2007, Toto’s was the second member inducted into the World Pizza Hall of Fame.
Back in 1961, Toto’s catered mainly to students from the nearby Melbourne University. Today, walking along Lygon St involves ducking and dodging aggressive touts, determined to make you eat at their establishment. Pizza is everywhere, just like Skyhooks sang. The evolution continues: from European speciality street to tourist mecca, Lygon St was in danger of becoming – in the words of Shannon Swan, co- director of the urban history short film Lygon St – Si Parla Italiano -a “caricature of itself”. This, coupled with the street’s descent into murky gangland territory in the 1990’s (Mick Gatto, anyone?) tarnished its reputation a fair amount. People who always loved “Little Italy” have stayed away, in spite of Carlton’s reputation as a counterculture hot spot in the 1970’s and 80’s. But there seems to be a re-emergence of spirit in more recent times.
Approaching Toto’s from across the street, it advertises its heritage loudly and proudly, with a large sign post above the front entrance: “Toto’s Pizza House First in Australia”. It features al fresco dining at the front, tables and chairs underneath large umbrellas, like most trattorias on Lygon St. The interior is traditional trattoria as well: wooden tables and chairs, with the large pizza oven at the front.
It has since expanded to two more stores, one in Richmond and one in South Melbourne. The current owner is Sami Mazloum, who has operated the store since 1982. It has only changed hands once in its long history, and Sami bought the original recipes off Salvatore as well.
Family and tradition are the big drawcards for Toto’s – something that Mazloum, speaking in 2008, recognised, and which corresponded with his own values.
“It is a family restaurant,” he said. “I try to keep building the name in this industry. The family is the main thing; it is the foundation of the society.”
He wanted the restaurant to be about food and family; the customer to feel like they are eating at home. The restaurant’s focus on fresh produce and excellent service is a part of that as well – Mazloum’s vision is that the restaurant is like a stage, and the customers are the audience to the performance.
The menu has changed since 1982 – expanded from purely pizza and pasta to incorporate other foods such as steak and seafood. But the pizza continues to be the staple: those Italio- Aussie hybrid classics that are now found in every small town pizza shop in Australia. Ironically, those hybrids that were invented to suit the palettes of Australians are now under threat from a new wave of ‘gourmet’ pizza varieties and traditional Italian wood fired.
Mazloum, who hails originally from Lebanon, believed it is hard work and inspiration which begets success, following on from opportunity.
“Australia is a great nation,” he stated. “We are a multi-cultural society; the people come from all over the world. They bring their best. This country opened their door and their heart to me and to thousands and thousands like me.”