Melbourne’s Italian heritage dates back as far as the first settlement. But it wasn’t until post-war immigration that Italian culture really began to influence the way Melburnians ate, lived and loved. Since then, Lygon Street has been the hub for Italian food, art and tradition. Second- and third-generation Italians still head to Lygon Street to eat, drink and shop at the precinct’s famous stores — many of which have been operating out of the same premises since the 1950s.
If there is one single icon that defines Lygon Street, it is the neon outline of a cyclist in motion, hunched over the handlebars, on the corner of Lygon and Grattan Streets. This is Nino Borsari, the former Olympian in full flight, powering his way over Lygon Street.
Borsari was a legend before he stepped ashore in the new world, an Olympic gold medallist at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, an international cyclist on tour. He was invited to Australia in 1934 to ride in the Victoria’s Centenary Bike Race, which he duly won. He toured Australia again in 1939, and due to a twist of fate, did not return to his native land; the outbreak of World War II left him stranded in Melbourne.
Despite his status as a champion, Borsari was classified as an enemy alien. His country was at war with Australia, the politicians argued. As an ex-Olympic champion, however, in a country that revered sporting champions, he was not interned along with his hapless countrymen. By 1941 Borsari had established his bicycle repair shop on Lygon Street, and taken his first step to local legend status.
Nino Borsari became the personification of Little Italy, the forerunner of the post-war boom, an advance scout who expanded from a cycle repair shop to owning an emporium, an entrepreneur who turned a profit from bicycles and kitchenware, radios and jewellery, espresso machines and bombonniere, and, in years to come, Italian cuisine. The neon sign was erected in 1948. It still stands, over 60 years later, the oldest neon sign in the world. So it is said.
Throughout it all, Borsari drew his immigrant countrymen to him and tended to their needs. His shop was a meeting place, a de facto employment agency, a place to speak the mother tongue and reminisce about the homeland, a place to buy an Italian newspaper, to argue over soccer and politics and, as the new world became a familiar home, to follow the fortunes of Carlton Football Club, once the likes of Sergio Silvagni and Vinny Cattoggio became household names.
Borsari was dubbed the ‘unofficial mayor of Little Italy’, in effect the leader of Italian immigrants’ fledgling Lygon Street community who mixed comfortably with older Australian residents. After all, he was a passionate sportsman and man of the world, as much at home over a glass of wine at Jimmy Watson’s, as over an espresso in the Italian cafés that sprouted like mushrooms on the Lygon Street strip. He was a leading force in both Italian community politics, and a delegate in Melbourne’s bid for the 1956 Olympic Games.
This text is from Stories from the Heart of Melbourne, a book commissioned by the City of Melbourne and written by authors Dr Arnold Zable and Dr Sophie Couchman. The stories are based on research, and information provided by interviewees. The book is available for borrowing from City of Melbourne libraries.