50 years in a Kings Cross cafe
Vittorio turned 82 the other week. As usual, he put in a day at the Piccolo Bar, the tiny Kings Cross cafe he has worked in for 50 years, and owned since 1994. He stars in a show about himself, Piccolo Tales, now in its second season, by local Vashti Hughes, who also plays Vittorio in an absurdist double bill of sorts.
My first encounter with Vittorio in the early ’80s found a man both warm and irascible. A legend already, fascinating to this teenager keen for street wisdom. He served Vegemite on toast and average coffee. He declares himself a terrible barista. But people never went to the Piccolo for gourmandism. They have always gone for Vittorio Bianchi and his connection to community; his patter studded with expletives and jokes.
“You were a grumpy old bastard back then, bub,” his niece calls from the kitchen when I visit recently. “You’ve mellowed.”
Vittorio looks nonplussed. Small and lean, in spotless dungarees, age has reduced frame not spirit. He lives in the window seat, “where people can see me”.
“Hallo,” passers-by call.
“Hallo,” Vittorio bellows back. “You wanna coffee?”
In comes an elegant hobgoblin with prominent ears and nose, tall man’s stoop and a beautifully cut suit. It is Danny Abood, of legendary 1960s drag troupe Sylvia and The Synthetics, immortalised by photographer William Yang among others.
Gossip ensues of an ailing friend and dead movie star, “Midget” Mastroianni (Marcello), before Abood settles into a crossword, one ear on our interview.
Born in Seiano, a village near Naples, Vittorio came to Australia aged 14, part of the postwar wave of Mediterraneans who vivified this colony paled by Anglo dominance. “I lived in a shitty place called Belfield with my uncle, aunty and two sisters, Maria and Rosa. We come on the boat Toscana. It took 40 days. No school, except for Rosa. I went to work in a box factory.
“It wasn’t too much good being gay in Sydney in those days. Once I got the shit beaten out of me on the way home. They used to beat up gay guys, rob them.
“In the Cross, it was safer. I loved everybody. I was so naive. Even the ones who were junkie. I always thought there’s good in everybody.” Gales of laughter issue from his niece in the other room. “I don’t think that now … Lots of people took me for a ride.”
“People just walk all over him,” his niece adds. “It’s just horrible.”
“Remember when you were young and ugly?” Abood cackles.
“I was a son of a bitch,” Vittorio nods.
After the factory, Vittorio worked for his uncle at Paddy’s Markets. Even in the 1970s, when I shopped there with my mother, Italophile in food and culture, these delis were a bastion, the cheese vendor singing his wares in opera. Vittorio’s uncle paid badly, so Vittorio moved to shoe selling, then the Piccolo.
Its owner, Egyptian Ozzie, employed Vittorio for 25 years, eventually making him a business partner. “I used to come here 6 o’clock at night and as soon as my boss left, everybody’s start rolling joints. And I had no idea. No idea. Ozzie said, ‘Stay open until two.’ But 2 o’clock it was chock-a-block so we stay open all night.”
In 2011, the cafe was renovated for the first time in 50 years. Many remember its walls thick with photographs, grease, nicotine and the steam of a million minestrones. Vittorio is not sentimental. “The shop was full of rubbish, on the walls, the tables. There was so much stuff; too much.” Now it is white, a lofty ceiling relieving the tiny interior. A portrait of Rosa in red looms over the bar. Opposite, some photographs remain.
Vittorio has been associated with local luminaries such as vice king Abe Saffron, whose Les Girls was a few doors up. Yet Abe never even greeted him. Rosaleen Norton, Witch of Kings Cross? Shrug. Juanita Nielsen, 1970s anti-development activist whose disappearance has always been attributed to Saffron. “A stuck-up bitch. She used to just sit there, she never talked to me!”
Vittorio’s heart remains with showpeople, featured in the photographs, most now departed to death or other shores. “Fifi L’Amour, Boom-Boom, Michael Matou, Sigarette, Simon Reptile–”
“Slimey Reptile,” Abood mutters in his opiate twang.
“Shuddup! Elizabeth Burton. You seen her strip? Poetry in motion … We used to do Cabaret Conspiracy, down at Garibaldi’s. Nobody got paid. The place was full on Sunday night. It cost $2 … I was MC, working here six nights a week, Sundays down there … Jacqueline Hyde, she lives in Paris now. Doris Fish.”
“Jacqui’s just bought a dog,” says Abood. “So she’s not coming back.”
“Oh, that fucking bitch.”
The names continue. Reg Livermore, Brett Whiteley, Jeannie Lewis, Madame Lash. Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn. Graeme Murphy, Mandy Sayer, Louis Nowra.
“He was like the poste restante for everyone,” says Abood. “If you’d been away for a while, you’d come in here and he’d be like, ‘Oh, so-and-so!’ He’d receive packages from everywhere. Full of letters, newspapers, photos and, oh, endless. If ever you were going anywhere, he’d give you stuff to take: a huge bag. Oh, god. And you’d take out the personal letters and throw all the rest of the shit into the bin.”
Gay men of this age are precious rare – criminalisation, AIDS. An unrequited love of Vittorio’s was among the legion dead. “When he died, I thought I would die from the pain.”
Vittorio looks mournfully out the window. “And now with the sniffer dogs, the police… The Cross is dead now.”
As I write this, I hear Vittorio has taken ill. Guarisci presto, Vittorio. The lights are still on in the Piccolo.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Heart of the Cross". Subscribe here.