Sisto Malaspina—Amore Segreto

It was the day after the AFL Grand Final of 2017. On that cold day, with nary a hint of spring in the air, my friend Anubha and I walked into Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street to cap off a majestic morning, where we had eaten and drunk in the spirit of la dolce vita. The cafe is a cultural and historical icon of Melbourne town and I wanted to finish off our Italian-inspired morning of the good life with the most quintessential Italian place. We settled ourselves on the bar stools at the far end of the cafe with a view into the kitchen and the cosy dining nook, where people were sometimes shepherded if the cafe got too crowded, which was often the case.

We ordered some hot drinks and were working out what to eat when a gentleman with a warm, youthful face, a vivid cravat around his neck, and a smile dialled up to 11 greeted us. We guessed he was the boss but wouldn’t know until a few minutes later that he was also one of the proprietors of the shop. Almost immediately he made us feel at home and we settled into a comfortable and open conversation about ourselves, about him, the shop, the food and the city. We went with his food suggestions and devoured them within minutes while he made us cold beverages and I made unsuccessful attempts to deter him from doing so, my mind on the final bill. He cheerfully dismissed our protestations and we continued talking, our conversation frequently punctuated with his absence as he left to talk to the regulars and other visitors alike. We marvelled at his popularity. Clearly, this was a man who was loved.

Sisto Malaspina migrated to Melbourne in the 1960s and took over Pellegrini’s in 1974 with his friend, Nino Pangrazio. His hard work transformed the cafe into the cultural icon it is today and he would become indelibly associated with it. You couldn’t walk into Pellegrini’s without meeting Sisto and being utterly charmed by him.

When it was time for us to go, he asked us to pay a tiny fraction of the food and drinks we had consumed and staunchly refused to take our money in full. He asked us to come for dinner later in the evening so that he could devote more of his time to us. We accepted his generous offer but wondered if we had been too hasty as we started to walk down to Elizabeth Street. Anubha didn’t feel too well with the beginnings of a headache and we had had a long day of walking and being outdoors.

But we had been thoroughly enchanted by his genuine friendliness and charm, and in the end decided to go. We arrived a little after eight o’clock with a bouquet of flowers and a card picked from the Paperback Bookshop right next door. These small gifts were symbolic of our immense gratitude for his generosity and love, or as he called it, ‘amore segreto’ (secret love). Going was one of the best decisions we ever made. Not only was he forthcoming about his life in Italy and his emigration to Australia, but we also talked about the human condition, about life, about love and friendship, and how he always took Sundays off to attend church. He was terrifically upbeat, warm, gentle and kind, making us a three course meal, making sure our glasses were always full and being so hospitable that I could scarcely believe that all of this was real, that here was this gentleman who was simply magical. I left the establishment in a daze, remarking again and again about how glorious it had all been. Anubha was similarly moved, so much so that she wrote an article so we would never forget how much that night had moved us.

I would see Sisto Malaspina just three more times after that life-changing day, visiting him on the days he was working at the cafe, which I had effectively memorised. Every time he would be the absolute best human and make me want to be more like him. Nothing was more important to Sisto than the people he worked with and his loyal customers. Had a bad day? Sisto’s beaming face and exuberant personality would make you feel loved and on top of the world. His charisma was unmatched. I always left feeling full of food and heart. He was a lighthouse in the dark and his compassion for people permeated through everything and everyone.

The last time I saw him in April 2018 was the day before I left my city. We discussed the best way to keep in touch. I promised to write him a letter, which I did, and hugging him tightly, looked forward to the next time I would be back at the counter laughing with him. I did not know that was the last time I would see him. I cherish that memory even more now.

Sisto was killed in a terror attack by a man wielding a knife in November 2018. He was taking an afternoon walk in the Melbourne CBD, a stone’s throw from Pellegrini’s when a man crashed his car on Elizabeth Street and began attacking people with a knife. Onlookers say Sisto tried to intervene to help the man but was stabbed instead. His death brought out an outpouring of grief and remembrance from thousands, if not millions, of people who had met Sisto. He was given a state funeral, a fitting tribute which he rightly deserved.

Since leaving Melbourne, I have been listless and in mourning for a place and a life I had fit so well into. I try not to think about the city because it causes avalanches of sadness. To counter my grief, I sometimes imagine myself being back there but without anyone to meet with. This is a normal tactic of my depression, to make it seem like I no longer have friends. I imagine that going back to my city would be like being enveloped in a tight, loving hug that suddenly turns cold and sad because… I don’t know anyone there. I used to think that even if that were true, Sisto would be among a couple of people whom I could run into and talk openly about heart-filling things with him.

Now he’s gone. And Melbourne, which is still home, feels a little more unfriendly. I won’t be able to surprise Sisto with an unexpected appearance, and no matter what, I will still expect him to be at Pellegrini’s the next time I set foot in it. As long as my memory keeps functioning, I will remember him, his lightness and how his sincerity, affection and joy made him one of the best humans to ever walk this planet.

I will miss you my friend. Your amore segreto is alive and well and will keep burning for as long as those who knew you remember you.