Address: 56 Bonwick St, Fawkner & Gladstone Park Shopping Centre
From a chat with Carlo and Julia that’s been edited.
(Carlo) I was born in Calabria, Italy, and moved to Melbourne with my Mum when I was 14 years old.
We arrived in Port Melbourne on June 15, 1963 and on July 15, I started working at Lucchini, a traditional Italian pasticceria on Lygon St, Carlton. I told them I was 15 to get the job because that was the minimum age to work.
I come from a family of 16. All my brothers and sisters came to Australia in the 1950s because it was very hard to find work in Italy after the war. Like many other people, they emigrated in search of a better life.
After a while, they said to my Mum and I, “there’s no point staying in Italy.”
“Come to Australia.”
We didn’t know what we were coming to, and it was a hard road, because I spoke no English and didn’t go to school here. I came at an age where I was too old to start, so I began an apprenticeship as a pastry cook. That didn’t last long because I couldn’t understand the language. The teacher said, “learn a bit of English, then learn about cakes.”
My English only came about by talking to people at the shop. I also kept my Italian language better than in Italy because I was dealing with people from different areas. Some from Sicily, others from North Italy, all with different dialects and ways of speaking. I don’t know how to explain how I learned English but, I picked up words here and there and – after nearly 60 years – I accumulated the language.
I have no idea why I wanted to become a pastry chef at that time.
I was a young boy and I didn’t know what work was about.
My brothers and sisters were in farming, and I was the only one who went into pastry.
There were times when I wanted to go back to Calabria.
It was really hard for me as I couldn’t cope with the language barrier. The work probably kept me going, but there were times when I wanted to change jobs. I thought about becoming a butcher, but I didn’t like the smell of the meat. I wanted to be a hairdresser, but I didn’t want to wash people’s hair, so I stayed making cakes.
Some of the people I worked with at Lucchini back then were protective of their trade and recipes. I had to start at the bottom and it wasn’t easy. The owner wanted to teach me, but the other pastry chefs were maybe scared to lose their job.
“We teach this young fella; we might be out of our job.”
To pinch a recipe was to pinch $1000.
However, those chefs were really, really good at their job, and I still do things today that they taught me 60 years ago. I’ve kept the same recipes that I learned when I was a young kid. Of course, my family want to add a few more things, which I don’t mind. But I would never change my recipes for one of theirs.
I’ve also learned by making mistakes. Every time you make a mistake, you arrive at a new product. And Julia will tell you, when I make my sfoglia, people go crazy.
I wouldn’t change it for any cakes whatsoever.
It took a lot to convince the pastry chefs to teach me but, once they did, I enjoyed the work more.
That was when the boss really gave me the freedom to do what I wanted.
After a while, he said, “Carlo, I like the way you work and do what you do. I’ll give you the keys to the shop. You make whatever you like, as long as you’re happy.”
I started to make cakes by myself, and eventually bought the business. But I went in with no management experience, and it wasn’t a great time to be on Lygon St in the mid-1960s.
The previous owner of Pasticceria Padova used to come to Lucchini, because I made panettone for his shop. He said, “Carlo, come and buy my shop.” I was about to finish in Lygon St, and I didn’t know anything about Pasticceria Padova. I said I’d only do it if I could work there for six or 12 months, as I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I made on Lygon St.
He said, “sure, but I can’t pay you a lot of money.”
At that time, I had a young family, including my son Adrian, and I said, “that’s fine, but I have to finish at a certain time so I can go to my second job,” which was making pizzas at night in Kensington.
After a while, the customers would want to talk with me and not the owner, which was the sign that I could take over the business.
We came to an agreement, I bought the shop and I eventually gave up the pizza job.
I’ve been here for over 40 years now.
When I took over, it was just me, another staff member and my wife, Alma.
Most of the time, she was at the front serving the customers, and I was at the back making all the cakes. Sometimes, we’d work 16-20 hours to do what we had to do. We’d open early, and close late.
The good thing was I lived close by. I could leave a cake in the oven – go back home to have something to eat – then come back and take it out. Sometimes, I’d forget. I’d come in to the shop in the morning, and the cakes would be like bricks.
I have lived in the area for over 50 years now. For the first 10-12 years in Fawkner, the demographic was more than 90 per cent Italian. There were a few Greek, Maltese and some Australian born customers too. Now there’s a complete mix. We cater to everyone and all nationalities.
It’s been a nice place. As far as I’m concerned, it’s as good as everywhere else.
The cakes we do are mostly from the north of Italy.
It’s beautiful stuff.
I came to Melbourne so young, so I wasn’t sure what the traditional cakes and pastries were at that time. I learned everything I know from the other pastry chefs. But, now, I’m passing on my recipes to my family. I have five kids who grew up in the flour.
(Julia) We were all in and around the business growing up. When we were young, Dad had a room at the back which was set up with a couch, and a TV for us. We’d be there, grabbing cakes, talking to the customers, helping Mum and Dad and so on. When we became teenagers, we were more involved in the business – especially around Christmas, Easter and other busy times.
(Carlo) Three of my kids work here. One of my daughters has her own shop, but she comes in all the time to get cakes and help out. My youngest son isn’t much involved, he is a designer, but his wife works in the shop part-time.
Its mostly family but the other workers are like family to us.
Sometimes, customers didn’t want anyone but me to serve them.
I have to stop what I’m doing to take the order. Even today, some customers will come in and say, “where’s Carlo!”
We brought coffee in about 12 years ago, but I should’ve started 20 years ago. I was a bit hard-headed, but a customer begged me, “Carlo, do coffee.” I didn’t think I had enough time to be honest – and I didn’t want to believe it – but when the business wasn’t doing as well as it could be, I thought, “what the heck, lets see what happens.” I tell you, it probably helped us survive.
It’s hard to make enough of a living out of just cakes – especially with supermarkets selling things so cheaply. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t top quality and handmade the way our stuff is, it makes it hard for the little shops.
But there was a turning point where these traditional Italian cakes and pastries become popular, not just among Italians, but the wider community.
(Julia) In Fawkner we noticed that the area became more diverse and multicultural. We used to have Italian street festivals once a year, as the street was predominately Italian, but we’re happy with that diversity.
For Middle Eastern customers in particular, it might not be the sweets that they grew up with, but around Ramadan and Eid, we are so busy.
(Julia) Dad taught my brother and my brother-in-law to bake, and my nephew has just started his apprenticeship.
(Carlo) I’m the harshest trainer. You’re not going to learn at school what I teach him. By the end, he can teach the teachers what he learns here.
We always start early in the morning, and figure out what we’re going to do for the day. We often begin with the sponges, cannolis, the cream puffs, flaked pastries like the vanilla slice and so on. We also do a lot of cakes for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, baptisms and confirmations. We’ve also done a few divorce cakes, but not many. A bit of everything – whatever people ask for, and any occasion.
Through all of this, you build relationships. They aren’t customers anymore, they just become friends. Sometimes, it’s a bit awkward, as you can’t ever say no. How can you deny a customer who’s become a good friend, who forgets to order a cake by a certain time?
(Julia) the other day, a customer said, “Carlo! You made my engagement cake, my daughter’s baptism cake, now you’re doing my daughters’ 18th birthday cake.”
(Carlo) It’s a long time to work in a place for 40 years.
I get tired sometimes but I love what I do.
(Julia) He’s always singing, making cakes, seeing friends and drinking coffee.
Customers are always asking after him. His passion for what he does keeps him young. He has a contagious bubbly personality and always a smile on his face.
(Carlo) The first thing I do when i open the shop is say “good morning” to everyone. Even when I have a headache. Then, I make the cakes because, like a robot, it’s what I’ve always done. It doesn’t matter what type of cake I’m doing; I enjoy all of it. When it comes out of the oven looking perfect, it’s a good feeling.
There’s some cakes that other people don’t want to make, but I like it because they don’t do it. My favourite thing to make are the cream puffs, because it’s a good seller, it’s easy to make, and it’s my favourite to eat.
I never go past them. As soon as they come out of the oven, I’ll pump cream inside and it’s beautiful.
(Julia) My favourite is the sfoglia cannoncini that Dad makes. People would say that the cannoli represent the shop, but for me, there’s nothing like it
When Dad brings it out of the oven, he’ll ring me and says, “guess what I’ve made.
(Carlo) Working with family has its challenges.
When you work with staff, you can ask them to do the dishes.
When it’s your family, they can say, “do it yourself”
Besides that, it’s fun.
And, I think for the area, we have a lot of customers who moved away from Fawkner. But they come back to order and buy cake from us. This shop is important within the Italian community, and it’s the longest-standing business in the area.
We’re lucky that we could build those relationships with customers over the years, but it’d be hard to start this type of business today.
It’s a hard job.
(Julia) After renting the shop for 25 years my parents finally bought the building knowing they weren’t planning to move.
We opened a second store in Gladstone Park Shopping Centre.
I run the Gladstone Park shop, the manufacturing is run by my brother and brother in law, and done here for the two stores.
We opened the second shop in March 2020 – two weeks before lockdown – but luckily we could do takeaway during that period, which kept us going. Between the two shops, we kept all our staff in jobs and the stores afloat.
Growing up, I’ve been involved in the business to some degree. I always loved it, but the shop probably wasn’t big enough to support everyone. Then, about 12 years ago – after my Mum slowed down with work – my brother-in-law Frank and I came in full time.
Mum and Dad took a trip oversees, and when they saw that things were running smoothly, it was confirmation that we could sort things out and handle the daily running.
Adrian re-joined us eight years ago after having a break from cakes and following a different path, but it’s clearly in his blood to be a pastry chef just like dad.
(Julia) The shop is Dad’s baby
He’s still nurturing it, and he’s here all time.
I don’t think there’s ever a day where he doesn’t come in. I think it gives him energy. He truly enjoys his work and being around people.
I love working with him. Not many people get to do this sort of thing. The opportunity to watch him work, and spending time with him, you can’t take it for granted.
Even my two kids who are 11 and 9 come through and on school holidays like to help as we did as kids. My parents have 12 grandkids, and the next generation love seeing him work, watching their nonno do what he’s doing and helping whenever they can.
At the moment, Adrian, Frank and I are running things and Dad is able to take a step back.
I hope we can continue his legacy.
Written by Aron Lewin with all photos by Tatiana C.C. Scott