Address: 835 High St, Thornbury VIC 3071
From an interview with owner, Giovanni (Johnny) and customer/friend Frank in 2022 that’s been edited.
Published in collaboration with the Darebin City Council
I started this business with my wife, Tina, in 1966.
We were born in Sicily and I met her here.
I came to Australia when I was 16 in 1954. My sister and brother-in-law had a continental cake shop and a gelato shop at 301 and 305 Victoria St, West Melbourne. He was the first one to make gelati by hand, before he bought a machine from Bologna. In those days, there weren’t many gelato shops, and they made the best gelati in Australia.
My sister convinced me to move, and when I came, I was crying because I wanted to go back home. All my family was in Sicily – my mum, my father, all my brothers and other sisters. My sister was the only one in Australia.
In my family, no one else made cakes. Just my sister and brother-in-law.
My brother-in-law was a prisoner of war in Australia.
In those days, the soldiers worked on the farm.
The family he worked for loved my brother-in-law. When he finished working he went back to Italy, and this Australian family brought him back. Not to work on the farm, just to bring him back.
The people came from everywhere to buy their gelati and cakes. Back then, there weren’t many Italian cake shops. He was a professional – better than me – and his shop was very popular.
I worked for them for four or five years. Then, I grew up and went to work somewhere else.
I worked at the CSIRO in their kitchen, then I got married and had no money.
I bought a house in Clifton Hill. I had a new, beautiful sports car from England. What could I do? I couldn’t pay for my house or car anymore. I paid £38 a month for my car and £28 a month for my house. Then I found this woman and, boom, she got me.
I worked as a utility cleaner as a second job. After a couple of months, I got another job working nights in the Exhibition Building. It still wasn’t enough, I couldn’t pay my bills. I kept asking to work weekends as a utility cleaner, and they gave me the job, because I was the best.
After a while, I started to make some money. I bought a business three shops down, which is empty now, and opened a delicatessen and grocery around 1965. We sold cold meats, cheeses and so on, but no cakes.
By then, my sister and brother-in-law had moved back to Italy, and someone else got their shop.
Making cakes was always in the back of my mind
In the meantime, this shop was up for sale, and I bought the property.
When we bought it, there was no pavement or ceiling. It was terrible. It took me two years to fix it. When the time came, I sold the deli, and made pizzas, gelati and whole chickens. After Toto’s in Carlton, it was the second pizza shop in Melbourne.
My son was small, so my wife came to the shop in the afternoon. She would look after the kids during the day, and when my mother-in-law came home from work, Tina would take over.
It was so busy, and the shop would be packed until 3am.
It was called Monticello Pizzas and Gelati.
At about 30 years old, I started to focus on cakes.
We made enough cakes to supply all of Coles in Victoria.
We catered big events and clubs and made lots of wedding cakes, 11-12 of them on a Saturday. We had others working for us – including apprentices – but my wife and I worked night and day. We never stopped, and sacrificed.
I decided to stop the pizzas because it was too much, and cakes were more important to me.
(Johnny) It takes many years to learn how to make these cakes.
We made a lot of different types of cakes. It’s like art, or painting, making a beautiful cake.
At 86, I still work. That’s passion. We work very hard, but I enjoy it.
And my wife is a super-woman.
She never stops.
I taught her how to make cakes, and she’s now better than me.
People followed us from the deli to the pizza shop, and then from the pizza shop to the cake shop.
You have to learn when you’re in business to never cheat people. Always be honest with them. If you try to overcharge, or try to take a short-cut, your name is gone. I’ve never done that. I give more to the customer, not less. My customers are my friends.
And I know a lot of people. Over three generations. I met them as kids, now they’re married. I always give them something as little children – a biscuit or a gelato – and they remember. Thirty years later, they come up to me and embrace me. That’s really special.
(Frank) There aren’t many original cake shops like this, and he doesn’t use things that people can’t eat. It’s genuine stuff. No preservatives or anything like that.
(Johnny) Our recipes are similar to what my sister and brother-in-law make. Some of these recipes go back 2000 years in Sicily.
Everything is fresh, and if people want a birthday cake, we make it for them straight away.
On the spot.
Most of our cakes, biscuits and cannoli are the same as they were when we started.
I make continental cakes, but if someone comes and wants an Australian cake, I’ll make it. We also supplied shops across Victoria with cannoli shells. Many places wouldn’t make them, but we made them at night. We used to start at 2am, and finish at 9am. Then I’d change my clothes, and start my work day.
(Johnny) There are customers who have been around for 50 years. They ring me now, and order a cake, biscuit or cannoli.
We’re also a very close family – closer because we worked together. My kids and grandchildren come and help me too.
They can do anything.
Even if the shop is closed for one day, I can’t stay home.
I have to come here. It’s like a drug for me. I’ve never gotten bored. My wife is the one who sets thing up and organizes things, and we make the cakes. It’s good teamwork. If I’m at the back, if I see a customer, I come and talk with them.
And I am lucky to have a friend like Frank.
(Frank) He’s a friend – and I come most days to chat – but even if I didn’t know him, I’d still come for the cakes. There aren’t many places like this. It’s one of a kind.
(Johnny) It’s very important to have someone like him. We’ve known each other for 50 years, and he used to run the shop nearby.
I knew his father, I know all his brothers, I know his sister.
The only thing is he’s more intelligent than me.
The area is very different now.
Years ago, when I came here, there used to be 12-13 fruit shops, 6-7 delicatessens, another 6-7 butchers. You couldn’t walk on Thursday, Friday or Saturday on the footpath. It was packed. We’re talking before Northland Shopping Centre. Can you imagine all those people? Next door was a fruit shop, the door after was a very busy butcher. Customers would come at 1am or 2am to that butcher.
I made traditional cakes and gelati that people couldn’t find anywhere else in Australia. It’s things that people might not have eaten in 50 or 60 years, and it means a lot to them. A lot of those people have passed away, but young people are coming in and realising that the cakes from supermarkets aren’t original, so they come here.
I haven’t changed anything in this shop.
A new fridge, that’s all.
During COVID, it was trouble.
We had a lot of weddings, engagements and big cakes for 21st birthdays, and people stopped ordering because of COVID. If they called two days before to say, “sorry, you can’t make the cakes,” we’d say “alright.” But the reception take the money, and don’t give it back. People lost a lot of money because of it.
For us, we give the money back because of honesty. We don’t play around, and that’s why people come. You look on the internet and see my name. Customers say, “he’s good looking,” and nice things like that. Now, it’s starting to improve. We’re still making all sorts of cakes for weddings, birthdays, christenings and so on.
We’re the oldest business in the area, along with Dante the Dry Cleaner, and Thomas A. Riddell Real Estate agency across the road.
We all have lots of energy.
(Frank) Outside the business, Johnny’s a good dancer, and he was a lightweight boxer.
(Johnny) I like sport. I’m mad on sport, and I’m a Carlton supporter.
Serge Silvagni, the former captain, was a friend of mine who used to come here.
Riddell is Collingwood.
When we beat them in the Grand Final I bought three newspapers and slid them under the door.
He must have known it was me.
I’m on my feet all day, but I’m still happy to come in.
My customers keep me young. They’re my friends.
And my family keep me happy too.
Written by Aron Lewin with all photos by Tatiana C.C. Scott