Little Italy is the strip of Lygon Street, Carlton, that runs from Queensberry Street on the Hoddle Grid to Elgin Street in the north. Populated with traditional Italian restaurants, aromatic cafes, quaint pasticceria, gelaterias, entertainment venues, boutiques and bars, every cosmopolitan dream comes to life in this Lygon Street Italian precinct.
There is an energy in ‘Little Italy’ that is unique to Melbourne because merging authentic Italian traditions with one of the world’s most livable cities brings out the best of both worlds. The fusion creates a dynamic culture of pioneering, passionate, family-centric immigrants with a cosmopolitan metropolis of arts, music, sport and dining. Eureka!
Originally owned by the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung tribe of the Kulin Nation, the Gold Rush of the mid-nineteenth century seduced several European immigrants to the area, chasing dreams in the shape of golden nuggets. The melting pot of ethnicities had a profound impact on the region’s identity and within 30 years an enterprising village of local multicultural businesses were established.
Prior to World War II, Carlton was a Jewish ghetto with professions such as Smorgon’s butcher, Berenholz’s shoe repair, Kanatopsky grocery, Altshuler’s bookshop, Cohen’s kosher restaurant, Markov’s pharmacy and the Carlton synagogue all popular establishments in the neighbourhood. By the late 1940s, ‘Little Italy’ was the Italian cultural centre of Melbourne and the Jewish community had been “persuaded” to relocate south of the Yarra, where they took up residence in St Kilda, Balaclava and Caulfield, rebuilding their thriving cultural centre.
Post World War II
With the rise of fascism in Italy in the early 20th century, the country was on the verge of economic collapse after the second World War. Australia became an attractive destination with the government’s ‘Populate or Perish’ program and within a single decade (the 1950s) over 170,000 Italian migrants settled in the country. [According to a 2006 census report, Victoria was home to the nation’s largest Italian-Australian population, with Carlton and Brunswick responsible for the highest number of inhabitants.]
Carlton was the obvious choice to settle with several Italian businesses already operational, and sponsorship from relatives provided connections and accommodation. There was also a steady stream of job opportunities because of several factories in the area and the close proximity to Queen Victoria market. The continuous expansion of businesses between Queensberry and Elgin Streets, such as cafes, restaurants, delicatessens, wine bars, partiscerries and clubs became a focal point for Italian social life and thus ‘Little Italy’ stamped it’s authority on Lygon Street and gave birth to Melbourne’s ‘Cafe Culture.’
As we adapt to a COVID-normal society, Melbourne City Council recognises the contribution ‘Little Italy’ has made to our most livable city and prioritised Lygon Street as a hospitality hub. They are dedicated to restoring and reinvigorating the local restaurants, cafes and bars with a focus on al fresco dining. The footpaths will once again be populated with socially distanced seating to provide the atmosphere we’ve come to know and love.
‘Little Italy’ will once again vibe with the authentic styles and flavours of the motherland. Tables will be abundant with pizza, pasta, espresso and vino, sourced from the freshest, locally produced, sustainable ingredients. Deli’s now burst with hand-made sausage, aromatic beans, focaccia, prosecco and gelato. No one serves up a slice of Italy like Lygon Street, where Italian culture and Australian culture merge in the most delicious manner. Ciao Ciao!