The Thread’s Broken (RIP Sisto)

There’s a scene in Giuseppe Tornatore’s film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in which the fatherly projectionist says to the young Salvatore, nicknamed Toto, “Living here day by day, you think it’s the centre of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything’s changed. The thread’s broken. What you came to find isn’t there. What was yours is gone.” The context here is that, upon returning from military service, Toto is beseeched by Alfredo to leave the small Sicilian village of Giancaldo, not to give in to nostalgia and never return otherwise his life will be one of unfulfilled potential. It’s a beautiful film and if you have a spare 173 minutes, as it must be the director’s cut, then take it all in.

 

Movie plots aside, Alfredo’s words still ring true. Everything changes and does so with indifference to one’s own feelings. In the years leading up to my becoming a father, visits to my own parents were considerably less frequent and each time I drove through the suburb in which I grew up there’d be one more street, one more row of houses which were unrecognisable. Seeing the local laundromat boarded up was enough to let go though. I mean who does that? Personal dryers are expensive and when you need that pair of lucky undies dried for goodness knows what occasion and rain’s broken unexpectedly over the hills hoist, a buck is small change to part with.

 

Malcolm Blight had his own take in what has been arguably one of this year’s best podcasts, The Greatest Season That Was: 1993. Among many great moments in the series his declaration that footy was not a “baby-kissing factory” ranks highly. “Your career ends, their career ends and someone else takes over.”https://omny.fm/shows/the-greatest-season-that-was-93/tgstw-93-malcom-blight-final Cold as ice and I love him for it.

 

I’ve spoken of my love affair with Melbourne before. It’s still my favourite place on the planet. On the annual, and occasionally bi-annual, visits you’d notice places that had been and gone but there was no loss of appeal, no kick in the guts. Not even with Percy’s gone. The visits over east have been less frequent lately. Over two years now and come the time of the next visit things will be different. Lastingly different, and not in a way one would hope they would be.

 

Sisto Malaspina was an icon within an icon. The circumstances surrounding his passing would have been no less tragic and pointless had it been anybody else, and let’s not waste oxygen or keystrokes on the individual responsible. Still, this was a much beloved figure and this stretches far beyond the upper reaches of Bourke Street. Effusive, always smiling. A snappy dresser, even without the ever-present neckerchief. Cheeky in the best possible way.

 

Photo by Wayne Ludbey (https://twitter.com/WLudbey/status/1061087558086475776)

 

To be honest, Sisto and I may not have even exchanged too many words if any at all in the many times I’ve seated myself at the counter. It was always at the counter. Why? Well, the breeze from the open door for one thing. But also I like to watch skilled craftspeople, those who are undeniably passionate about their work, up close. It’s not just this that brings this need for closer proximity though. The way I’ve described Sisto above, that kind of nature is infectious and you want to get as close as you can. Just so close that you’re not being a nuisance.

 

When you’re in a certain frame of mind it’s the sense of exuberance you get from people like Sisto that’s as comforting as the food in front of you. Marios (no apostrophe. There’s two of them.) was always for breakfast. I came to Pellegrini’s for the comfort. More often than not it was Friday afternoons. For me this was more often than not following a night at “Soul in the Basement” at Cherry Bar. A somewhat different sense of exuberance but one that often (no, let’s not kid each other, always) involved having a skinful. Rigatoni Bolognese heavy on the Parmesan, crusty bread on the side buttered thick, washed down with a granita, coffee and maybe another. All this in front of one of the most effervescent human beings you would ever hope to meet. If that doesn’t get rid of the shakes I don’t know what will.

 

You need only be in Pellegrini’s for but a moment to know he loved his customers. I think this was obvious to everyone. He also loved his Bombers. The shelf in front of the counter at Pellegrini’s is decked out with photos but for mine the one that sticks out the most, the one my eyes always locked on, was the one of Sisto and Kevin Sheedy with the 1993 premiership cup. Sisto looks like he could burst. Sheedy looks like he’s been up for a week.

 

Sisto should have spent many more years behind the counter. Instead this Friday just gone was his last day. Right around this senseless event was unfolding I was at work listening to a speech posted on Speakola. Eulogies were my thing on this day. I’d listened to sportscaster Bob Costas speak at the funerals of both Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial. The next one was the actor Billy Crystal giving the eulogy at the funeral of Muhammad Ali. What resonated the most was when he spoke about seeing the champ in the flesh for the first time:

 

“And then I nervously move into the jammed ballroom and that’s when I saw him for the first time in person. It’s very hard to describe how much he meant to me; you had to live in his time. It’s great to look at clips and it’s amazing to have them, but to live in his time, watching his fights, experiencing the genius of his talent, was absolutely extraordinary. Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He did things nobody would do.”https://speakola.com/eulogy/for-muhammad-ali-by-billy-crystal-2016

 

Crystal’s father Jack co-founded the Commodore record label with Milt Gabler, the label that produced Billy Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit”. Talk about being in the presence of greatness!

 

You had to live in his time. Billy’s absolutely right in what he says about Ali. It’s one thing to read about people held in such high regard no matter their field of expertise, to view archive footage, to hear other people speak of their deeds. It is another thing entirely not only to know you walked the planet at the same time they did and then to be in their presence watching them do what they’re born to do. When these people are in peak form it’s unforgettable. I’ve heard countless scores from Ennio Morricone (including the above mentioned Nuovo Cinema Paradiso). Some years later I saw him conduct. I DJ with old r&b 45s which, most of the time, is a tremendous joy. Having said that I’ve seen saxophonist Big Jay McNeely perform up close when he was well in to his 80s. One of the very last of the old school r&b honkers. There are plenty more names I could drop but I’ll spare all and sundry.

 

In spite of his off-field dramas, I’ll always regret never seeing Gary Ablett Snr perform. No amount of viewings of One Special Season, Round 4 1992 or Round 6 1993 will ever compensate for that. In his new book A Sporting Chance, Titus O’Reily describes seeing Ablett play live was akin to having electricity pass through your body (O’Reily, p. 234) . I’ll be forever envious.

 

Let’s remember just for a second that we are talking about the co-owner of a cafe for just a moment. It may come across as crass romanticism but I got the same feeling from being in Sisto’s presence that from any of these great figures mentioned above.

 

Sisto Malaspina was to Melbourne what Abe Lebewohl was to New York. Abe, a Holocaust survivor, opened the famed Second Avenue Deli in 1954. He was an equally high-spirited and adored figure and like Sisto, this went well beyond the city he lived in. In 1996, Abe was killed in circumstances just as tragic and senseless as how Sisto left us. Having moved to another location the Second Avenue Deli is still run today by the Lebowohl family. Suffice to say that Pellegrini’s will go on in much the same fashion having reopened since Friday’s events and so it should. It won’t be the same though that much is true. A massive part of its soul has gone. The staff will ultimately pick up the pieces and move on but right now they’ll be understandably devastated having lost someone who’s so irreplaceable. Coming home from some DJ work late on Saturday night and hearing co-owner Nino Pangrazio speaking on the ABC News Radio report of Sisto’s passing was gut wrenching. They knew each other well before they took over Pellegrini’s in 1974 and how he managed to put words together was beyond me.

 

We’ll all miss you, Sisto. Thanks for looking after me and countless others.

 

 

About Adam Fox

I'm based in Perth where I coordinate a radio show called "Soulsides" on RTR-FM. I collect and play rare soul and rhythm and blues 45s and despite my Perthian upbringing I chose to follow Geelong when West Coast came on the scene. I love the history of the game, particulary the VFL era and the suburban grounds and as much as I love the game I am also very fond of those who write about it. My passions are footy, soul music, my cats, my wife and young son Matteo and the city of Melbourne.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this Adam. I too have thought about writing some words on Sisto here. My meetings with Sisto the ebullient force of nature were fewer in number than yours, but I believe anyone who met him even once would now reflect on just how lucky they were that the infinitesimally small odds of existing at the same time and place came to be. You couldn’t help but admire his absolute dedication to engage so personably with each new face who crossed the doorway into Pellegrini’s. You also knew your time would come around again soon, that is until it didn’t… Vale.

  2. Wonderful Adam. As in full of wonder. Many thanks.
    I have never been to Pellegrini’s. Or had the good fortune to know Sisto. We have all known Sisto’s. Jouyous givers without expectation. Their eyes shine and the brighten all our souls.
    Be the change you want to see in the world.

  3. Beautiful, Adam. A fine tribute.
    Vale Sisto.
    And may his name – and that of Pellegrini’s – live forever.

  4. Colin Ritchie says:

    Fabulous tribute Adam! On my irregular visits to the big smoke from the country there are three things I always do. After parking the car at the Art Centre or leaving the train at Southern Cross, I firstly go to Basement Discs for a quick look, stroll up Bourke St to Pellegrini’s for a welcome coffee before checking out books at the Hill of Content. A couple of years ago I took my young grandson to Pellegrini’s to have his first granita, complements of Sisto of course, a lovely gesture from him. Sisto will be sadly missed but Pellegrini’s will live on.

  5. Jarrod_L – You should have a crack, tiger. A fair bit in that paragraph I would have liked to have said meself if I wasn’t doing such a hatchet job!

    Peter_B – A soul brightener like no other.

    Smokie – He was already one of the immortals. Such a legacy can only become stronger.

    Colin – Oh to have given my soon to be three year old Matteo one of Sisto’s granitas! That would have been an exchange to witness. I think he would have appreciated my giving him an Italian name. Hill of Content indeed! Either there or upwards to Carlton Gardens to cool off if I was nursing a particularly nasty one.

    Cheers everyone!

  6. Joe De Petro says:

    This is lovely, Adam. Pellegrini’s is, and hopefully will remain, a wonderful Melbourne icon. I always take overseas visitors there for a meal and to experience the vibe of this busy, Roman-style, unpretentious Melbourne eatery. Everybody I have taken there has always loved it.

    For several years we have congregated there for dinner to celebrate the opening of the footy season before the Richmond-Carlton game each March.

    I will be so sad next year.

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