Thursday, 20 February 2014

Northern Star Cafe

The character of the Northern Star Cafe on Beaumont Street has been formed over almost sixty years, infused with the history and aspirations of its Greek, Italian and Australian owners. Today, like any 60 year old, it knows who it is. It will have a few regrets - like all of us - and escapades best left hidden, but it enjoys the status of a Hamilton icon.

1974-1992 Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri

Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri purchased the Northern Star Cafe from Con Rolfe, a Greek immigrant, in 1974. The Café had been operating from as early as 1948, according to Hamilton resident Alex Sazdanoff. The Nicholsons had been its first owners.

Beaumont Street 1956
Northern Star Cafe in its place on Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 1956
 Con Rolfe, the first owner, is crossing the road, in the white apron he always wore
Photograph reproduced with permission of  State Library of NSW, 
copyright Fairfax Syndication 

Ada and Lorenzo were in their early 40s, with three children – Mario the eldest, aged 15, Norina aged 12 and Lucia, who was just 7. Acquiring a food business was a natural next step for Lorenzo, who had been cooking for working men for years. But to make this new venture a success, he would need his wife by his side, every day of the 7 day working week, and immense physical stamina.

It was in the Italian village of Cannara, on a rich floodplain beneath the hills of Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis, that Lorenzo and Ada grew up as next door neighbours.


Ada and Lorenzo began ‘going out’. However, their relationship was interrupted when Lorenzo responded to a call from the Australian government, which was offering to sponsor and provide work for fit and able European men. He was 22.

In 1955, Lorenzo and a small group of friends from Cannara left Italy together on the ship Toscanelli. Like many other emigrants in similar situations, they would support each other on this adventure, in a quest to build better lives for themselves.

The young men were to provide labour for the northern NSW cane fields around Lismore. After they had fulfilled their two year contract, they would be free to go elsewhere in pursuit of work, if they wished.

Young men recruited to work in the Lismore district canefields
One man in the front clutches his violin
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

Lorenzo’s family is unsure how long he actually worked as a cane cutter.

Lorenzo Bizzarri in the canefields
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

They do know that when a cook for the cane cutters’ camp had to be found, Lorenzo responded hesitantly –

‘I know a little bit...’

The job was his.

Lorenzo Bizzarri’s trade was shoemaking but in the family home, he’d been intimately involved with food in all its phases - production, preparation and cooking. Watering the vegetable garden, helping his mother make pasta, and feeding the pig and the cow were part of the daily routine. When the pig had grown, it would meet its fate and Lorenzo would help make sausages, prosciutto and salami from the animal. This knowledge would now be put to the test.

Working long hours in the cane fields was hard, hot and dirty work. Cooking was considered an easy job, even a ‘cop out’. One of Lorenzo’s friends offered to change places for a few days, believing he could easily do what Lorenzo did. However, he had no idea about how much water was needed to cook the pasta, pouring a huge packet into the pot. When it all swelled and became a glutinous mess, then men were not impressed! Lorenzo quickly got his job back.

When his contract finished, Lorenzo moved to Newcastle and found work at BHP. Now two years since he had left Italy, Lorenzo would have been feeling more settled. He was confident enough to ask Ada to join him Australia, and they became engaged.

Ada organised her identification documents, sailing to Australia in 1957 on the Aurelia. Joining him in Newcastle, they were married at Carrington. Ada wore the elegant linen suit she had brought with her.

I wanted something practical as my wedding dress’, she explains, ‘something I could wear afterwards – not a dress that would just hang in a room all the time’.


Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri sometime after their marriage
Ada is making good use of her wedding outfit
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

With no immediate family in Australia, the new migrants helped each other. Lorenzo bought their first home, in Sandgate, but did so as a joint purchase with his lifelong friend from Cannara. That friend had married too, and both couples shared the house. When the friend had enough money to move on to a solo purchase, another friend from the village offered himself as investment partner. Thus began a series of real estate purchases for Lorenzo and Ada – Hamilton, Cardiff, Merewether, Charlestown.

After working as a labourer in the BHP furnaces for 6 years, Lorenzo saw an opportunity to take over a shoe repair business in Lindsay Street, Hamilton, where he and Ada now lived.

Lorenzo Bizzarri repairing boots at the Hamilton business
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

When the materials used to make shoes changed, and fewer customers saw value in having their shoes repaired, Lorenzo knew he had to look elsewhere for work to support his family.

Transfield was a large and successful company that had had been founded by two Italian born engineers. Lorenzo became a cook for the gangs of men that installed the massive poles supporting parallel power wires throughout rural NSW. In the dozen or so years Lorenzo spent with Transfield, he must have learned a great deal about cooking the type of food that satisfied hungry workers.

Lorenzo’s job was challenging for Ada, at home in Cardiff now with three children. Lorenzo travelled to be with the gangs, and was away all week.

In 1974, the opportunity to buy into a cafe came through one of the many produce suppliers Lorenzo dealt with in the course of his work – fruiterers, butchers, grocers, bakers. One of them pointed out two businesses for sale – in Cardiff, and in Hamilton.

‘Count me out’, declared Ada, when Lorenzo put the proposition to her.

Nevertheless, the Northern Star Cafe was purchased by Lorenzo from its Greek business owner, Con Rolfe. Ada was in, for the long haul.

‘They’ve been together, they go together’, explains youngest daughter Lucia.

When Ada was growing up in Italy before World War II, education was not compulsory. She left school at Year 3 to help on the farm her family leased. This early education deficit affected her confidence. She worried about her English language skills in the public domain of a cafe, but that was where she was needed. She would overcome her fears, and in time, become very proficient in English.

The cafe was at 106 -108 Beaumont Street, Hamilton – open 7 days a week from 8 am to 8 pm. In these circumstances, daily travel from Cardiff, with 7 year old Lucia at school there, was not feasible. Lorenzo and Ada decided to rent the flat above the cafe. Thus, they took up residence once again in Hamilton, this time as Beaumont Street business owners. They would remain for some 18 years, from 1974 to 1992, leasing the premises.

Lorenzo and Ada had taken over a cafe with a typical Australian menu – hamburgers, fish and chips, toasted sandwiches, selling tea, coffee, milkshakes, soft drinks and ice cream. Having cooked so long for the Transfield work gangs, Lorenzo would have been very familiar with the food preferences of Aussie workers.

The Northern Star Cafe, between mid 1970s and 1980
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

 The double site accommodated two counters. One was for ordering meals, with the chip maker, toaster, and grill behind it. The other was for ordering drinks, with a giant lever coffee machine.

Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri at the milk bar
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

Seating was 8 booths with bench type seats and wall mirrors. In the rush by Australia after World War II to adopt American entertainment culture, many public venues such as cafes had installed juke boxes. One of the most popular models was the American Wurlitzer 1015. Customers could select from 24 popular songs. What a playlist!

Wurlitzer 1015 Jukebox

At some stage before Lorenzo and Ada took over the cafe, the juke box had been removed. Perhaps it had needed repair - the world of electronic entertainment had moved on, and owner Con Rolfe had it removed. Many Novocastrians remember the cafe juke box – I wonder where it is now?

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hamilton was rather different from today. Affordable accommodation such as boarding houses and rental properties was plentiful, catering for single working men, and tertiary students. They sought satisfying evening meals at places like the Northern Star Cafe, the workers calling first at a local pub.

Ada recalls University of Newcastle students voting the cafe’s potato scallops ‘the best in Newcastle’. These days, when she visits the John Hunter Hospital, it is not unknown for her to be stopped in the corridor by a young doctor (or maybe not so young now), who speaks respectfully and tells her how much the meals provided by the Northern Star Cafe were appreciated.

Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri washing up
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

Lorenzo made his own BBQ sauce for the hamburgers, but neither he nor Ada had ever tasted it. A bridge too far for these Italians! Still, it must have been good – Ada tells me - ‘People loved it!’

The front doors were always locked promptly by Ada at 8pm, although often the last customer was not out till 10 pm. The family ate late, after 8, at one of the booths at the back that was always reserved for them.

Ada prepared Italian food for the family, always cooking in the cafe. Late diners were sometimes curious about what they were eating, and would ask to try some. Homesick young Italian men would ask for the dishes they loved. Ada grew favourite herbs, such as radicchio – at that time, the tangy bitter taste would have startled Australian palates.

The cafe was not licensed, but typically, this Italian family enjoyed wine with meals. Diners occasionally asked to share the privilege, in particular some undercover detectives. In the 1980s, the cafe became licensed for BYO, but charged no corkage.

Downsizing the cafe from a double to a single shopfront in 1985 provided the impetus for Ada and Lorenzo to reshape their menu. Italian dishes such as gnocchi, fettucine and lasagna, as well as scallopini, calamari and pizzaiola were now integrated into the offerings.

Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri at the remodelled counter
The new menu is at the back, featuring Italian dishes
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

Ada made the pasta by hand, and Lorenzo cooked the meat and sauces. Ice cream and lemon gelato were sold. People had money to spare; the cafe became even busier in the evenings. The cafe would not have functioned without the loyal staff who backed up the work of Ada and Lorenzo.

By the time the 1989 earthquake struck Newcastle, the Northern Star Cafe was operating just 6 days a week. The family had begun to institute taking a break over the Christmas – New Year period. This was quite an an innovation.

L - R: Norina, Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri with Christmas sponge cake 
decorated with chocolate
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

Nevertheless, on this day Friday 28 December, 1989, Lorenzo and Ada were in the cafe cleaning – Lorenzo in the cool room at the back. Ada was on the phone at the front. Transfixed, she watched the four door refrigerator sway out, and back again into its position. Lucia, now engaged to be married, was shopping nearby. She rushed to the cafe.

The remodelling of the cafe saved it from serious damage. The loss of power meant stock damage, but because they had closed for Christmas, stores were low.

Helen Di Claudio was employed by Lorenzo and Ada, and would go on to be one of the longest serving staff members. She vividly remembers then Prime Minister Bob Hawke visiting Newcastle. With his entourage, he walked along Beaumont Street, inspecting the damage and talking to business owners, connecting with them in their shock and loss. Pausing outside the Northern Star Cafe, he shook hands with Helen, and her husband.

Earthquake aftermath – Bob Hawke speaks to the press
Photograph by Ken Robson, reproduced with permission Fairfax Syndication

After the earthquake, Ada and Lorenzo began thinking about retirement. They had resolved to stay in business until their youngest child Lucia was married – once that milestone was achieved, they could take life more easily. Their children were making their own careers and not interested in taking over the cafe.

The Bizzarri family (1986/87)
From left: Ada, Norina, Lorenzo, Lucia, Mario
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

Lorenzo and Ada hoped to find a staff member whom they could transition into the business, but this did not eventuate. The business was sold to Phillip and Dianne King in 1992.

Lorenzo and Ada Bizzarri on their retirement (1992)
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

They would have almost 20 years together in retirement before Lorenzo developed dementia. In 2012 he died, aged 80.

Ada still makes enough fettucine for 30 diners, drying the delicately swirled nests thoroughly on a table in her sun room at Charlestown. These days, her adult children and grandchildren are the grateful recipients of her skills and generosity. I am too, as she packs me chunks of cake and melt-in-my-mouth biscotti to take home.

I am sorry to have missed meeting Lorenzo by just a couple of years. When I ask people what he was like, I get similar accounts. They describe the familiar sight of Lorenzo flipping hamburgers and eggs in the window before the front was changed, always cheerful. Keeping one eye on what was happening up and down Beaumont Street, there was no back-kitchen cooking for Lorenzo. Lucia, his daughter, sums him up like this:

‘Lorenzo was firstly a very loving family man. Even though he looked tall and masculine, he was a softie inside! He was always cheerful and smiling, telling jokes or anecdotes. He was very generous – he couldn’t say no to anyone....he and Mum had many friends, Italian and Australian. He was very happy’.

Lorenzo Bizzarri and lever coffee machine
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Ada Bizzarri

1992 – 1995 Phillip and Dianne King

Phillip and Dianne King decided to put down roots in Newcastle after one too many moves for Phillip’s work in shopping centre development with Lend Lease. They’d lived in Dubbo, Darwin and Hobart, and once they were settled in Newcastle, decided to try something different. Their first experience in food was running Woolworths’ cafeteria; then they established ‘Ginger’s’ in Jesmond, which became a very popular coffee lounge. After five years there, they were thinking about a new venture when the Northern Star Cafe came to their notice. They bought it.

At first they thought the cafe would meet their criteria for creating an upmarket coffee lounge in Hamilton. They had plans for a total new look, stripping the old Benson and Hedges ads from the window, remodelling the front so food display cabinets were immediately visible on entry, and changing the seating. They were in for a surprise.

‘We had no idea what we’d bought’, Phil says.

What they had bought was an authentic Italian cafe producing home cooked food. Not only was it one of a kind, it was also very popular, and very profitable. Phil and Dianne decided they would not change anything. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. It would be critical, however, to ensure that the kitchen remained authentic, producing the pasta and other Italian favourites that the customers kept coming back for.

It took a couple of attempts to find someone who could continue the tradition of making perfect fettucine, gnocchi, spaghetti, and lasagna by hand, as well as meet all the other unwritten criteria for a great Italian cook. On their third attempt, they found Anna Zinnoni.

The cafe’s Italian customers, many of whom were men, had decided to give the new Australian owners a trial. They would have been encouraged by Phil and Dianne’s efforts to find a good Italian cook, although they did not hesitate to make their opinions known. On the other hand, the Australian clientele drifted off, believing that it could not be possible for ‘Australians’ to run an Italian cafe. Gradually, new customers were attracted, and the cafe became busier than ever. Open from 8 am to 9.00 pm, it was closed on just one day, Sunday.

Dianne remembers these years as ‘hard, hard work’. The King’s children were primary school age; she had no extended family in Newcastle to support her. Dianne describes rushing back and forth between the cafe and home to give them their meals, help with homework, and tuck them into bed. Saturdays were the worst, she remembers. At lunch time, 45 seats would be filled. Groups of Italian men would have met at The Kent Hotel for a drink in the morning, then walked across Beaumont Street for ‘a big lunch’ at the Northern Star Cafe.

‘I remember grabbing an hour’s sleep in the car on a Saturday afternoon, to prepare for the night ahead’, Dianne says.

Phil’s role was front-of-house; Dianne filled in doing whatever needed to be done. This might involve prepping food, washing dishes, cleaning, ordering and stocking, or waiting on tables.

The Kings were very careful not to introduce change just for the sake of it. They did, however, paint the interior, and changed the name to ‘Cafe Northern Star’. When some customers complained the menu never changed, they took the opportunity to rework it. Chilli baby octopus, quails, saltimbocca, and chicken parmigiana were added. Phil describes the reaction of those customers.

‘That’s great, the menu’s changed!’

Then they would order their old favourites.

In the evenings, tables would turn over at least three times. Transfield was one of the few account holders – a privilege granted by Lorenzo to his former employer. Once people found out that this was one of the best places in Newcastle serving authentic Italian food, they kept coming.

A team of Italian engineers, in Newcastle for several months to supervise the building of new BHP facilities in Mayfield, came for lunch and dinner for their entire stay. NSW boxer and Olympic medallist Grahame ‘Spike’ Cheney discovered the pasta at the Northern Star to be a perfect high carbohydrate/energy food – then others followed, such as the Russian-Australian light welterweight professional boxer Kostya Tszyu and his trainer Johnny Lewis. Undercover detectives with the major crime squad continued to patronise the cafe for lunches and a collegiate de-brief on their cases – at times a dozen or so of them.

At some point a license allowing BYO was obtained, and 50 cents was charged for corkage. A customer who was originally from Naples made liqueurs for sale at the cafe. Dianne still has some at home, and is reluctant to throw them out ‘because they smell so good’. Italy is renowned for its liqueurs, perhaps the best known being  amaretto, campari, apertivo, muscat and of course the legendary grappa.

Dianne recalls a day when she felt very unwell at work. An Italian – Australian staff member recommended a shot of grappa in her coffee, sipped slowly.

‘The effect was amazing’, she says.

Phil has a different preventive health story. Throughout the years at the Northern Star Cafe, he says, he never had one sick day.

‘It was the garlic’, he assures me.

They had continued the Bizzarri practice of getting in fresh garlic, peeling and mincing it on the premises, and storing it in oil. There was some trial and error involved in learning to pack the bottles so the pressure was just right. Phil does remember some early explosions in the cool room.

On the day I visited Ada Bizzarri, she and her daughter Lucia were peeling a small mountain of garlic on the kitchen table. The pungent smell filled the house. Now, I understand what was afoot.

So why did the Kings sell the Northern Star Café? The answer is simple.

'It was just too hard', Phil and Dianne agree.

I wondered what the difference was between their previous venture, Ginger's, and the Northern Star Café? Again, the answer was simple.

‘It was the hours. Ginger’s closed at 3 pm. That made the world of difference’.

When they purchased the Northern Star Cafe, they Kings were getting into something they had not expected – but they understood enough to know they had a winner. The just had to keep on winning. The price of doing that in terms of their family life was high; in the end, they decided, they would not continue to pay it. There were other ways to make a living.

In this venture into the world of the Italians, the Kings did not leave empty handed. Dianne learned the secrets of producing authentic home cooked Italian fare. For Phil, it was the Italians themselves -

The Italians are an unbelievably good people. Once you are their friend, you are a friend for life’.

Phillip and Dianne King
From the personal collection of Phillip and Dianne King

From 1995 – Juliano and Jill Borrelli

Jill Thompson, of English origins, grew up in Hamilton, where her family helped her grandmother run a boarding house in Donald Street, close to where they lived. She became a pharmacy assistant at Mayfield. When Jill married second generation Italian-Australian Juliano Borrelli, she not only committed herself to marriage – she also signed up to a career in the food industry.

Juliano was born in Waratah, Newcastle. His parents, Antonio Borrelli and Filomena Sembiante, had known each other in the village of Lama dei Peligni, in the province of Chieti, Abruzzo in Central Italy. The village had been bombed during World War II, forcing many to flee, including Filomena’s family. When they returned, they had to rebuild their home.

Antonio Borrelli migrated to Australia in 1952 in search of work and a better life. A boilermaker by trade, Antonio was able to find employment at BHP. He and Filomena corresponded by letter, and in time, they decided to marry.

Filomena would need to travel to Australia by ship, and marry immediately on arrival. Some Italian parents worried about their daughters travelling unaccompanied, and possibly being compromised in such circumstances. Marriage by proxy became common practice. The marriage took place before the girl left home, with a male relative of her or her fiancé, standing in as the legal substitute for the groom. The marriage was registered in Italy.

Between 1945 and 1976, some 300,000 Italians migrated to Australia. About 12,000 Italian brides were married by proxy. [1]

Antonio and Filomena were married by proxy on 4 October, 1956. Two ceremonies were held, one with Filomena in Italy, another with Antonio in Australia. It was not until a year later that Filomena arrived in Australia on a ship called the Sidney.

Filomena was known to family and friends as Minuccia. She and Antonio had three children - Juliano, Mario and Laura.

Filomena (Minuccia) Borrelli and infant Juliano (1958)
Photograph from the personal collection of Juliano and Jill Borrelli

Minuccia is important to this story because it was from her that Juliano learned to cook. As well as raising her family, Minuccia took cleaning jobs in the early hours of the morning so she could be at home in time to get her children off to school. Later she worked in hospitality, including Danilo’s Italian restaurant in Hamilton.

It was this experience that must have given her the confidence to open her own restaurant. With Juliano, just 16, Minuccia opened Sorrento Restaurant in Scott Street, opposite the Newcastle railway station. Minuccia was an excellent cook, and loved cooking for others. The Sorrento operated for 11 years. Juliano received a solid grounding not only in cooking, but also in the do’s and don’ts of running a successful business in the food industry.

Juliano went on to work as a cook at the Commonwealth Hotel, in Cooks Hill. That’s where he and Jill met. Their first venture together was JJ’s in Merewether RSL Club, which they ran for a decade. By then, they were ready for even more independence.

Jill used to take her daughters Jessica and Amy for a lunch treat to the Northern Star Cafe. When she heard the Kings were thinking of selling, they acted. Juliano went to work there free of charge for a fortnight, to verify its performance. They purchased, opening the cafe under new management on 24 April, 1995. The location was perfect – the very centre of busy Beaumont Street.

In this story of the Northern Star Cafe, some familiar threads are starting to appear. The cafe is a family business – husband and wife are critical to its success. The hours are long and demanding, so physical stamina and mental resolve are needed. Good staff are vital.

Going slow on changes

Anna Zinnoni, the King’s wonderful cook, had moved on to start her own business. The Borrellis decided to go slow on changes for the first year, addressing only the most pressing issues. A dishwasher was bought immediately. The bench at the back for making pasta had been built for Ada Bizzarri. It had to be raised 15 centimetres. A little later, the cafe’s name – and the sign – was changed back to the Northern Star Cafe.

Northern Star Café, late 1990s
Photograph from the personal collection of Juliano and Jill Borrelli

When they did make changes, these were modest. The interior was wallpapered with a ‘Tusany’ look, and a stained glass Northern Star Cafe was made for the sandwich bar.

Stained glass on the sandwich counter (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

The entrance needed modernising.

Former entrance to The Northern Star Cafe (1995)
Photograph from the personal collection of Juliano and Jill Borrelli

 Bi-fold glass doors were installed, opening the entrance up to its full width. What is today a quirky narrow ‘hallway’ at the side was once used for storage and rubbish. Jill and Juliano have transformed it into an attractive usable space, with small tables, and paintings by local artists on the walls.

‘The hallway’ – a quiet space for coffee (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Changes to the menu were made gradually, keeping pace with their customers’ preferences. Now, the Northern Star Cafe offers one of the largest menus in Hamilton, one for lunch, another for dinner. Customers receive crusty Italian bread free immediately they are seated – a custom long gone from most cafes. Traditional lasagne, house specialty pastas and home made sauces continue to be ‘core business’ for the Northern Star Cafe. Soups, salads, sandwiches, panini and open burgers are lighter offerings. Steak, seafood, chicken and veal feature on the menu, most cooked the Italian way.

Interior view of the Northern Star Café (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Juliano cooks everything on the menu – remarkably, every meal that is sent out from the cafe kitchen. The one exception is his day off, Monday, when relief cook Denise Willis comes in, trained to cook exactly as Juliano does. It is this consistent quality of the food that has made the cafe such a success. If you’ve had Spaghetti Fantasia one week, you can be certain that it will taste exactly the same next week.

The biggest change, Jill and Juliano agree, was the introduction of Juliano’s hand made gelato. Under the Kings’ management, Anna had made an occasional dessert, but they were not a feature. Once a gelato machine was purchased in 2000, and Juliano had learned the art and science of gelato making, the dessert menu expanded.

The gelato bar (2014) 
Photograph by Craig Smith

Gelato has become Juliano’s speciality and passion. That's not accidental - it’s in the family. Juliano's maternal great aunt Severina had owned and operated a cafe and gelato bar in Casoli, near Lama dei Peligni.  Juliano's mother Minuccia was just 15 when Severina, who had no children of her own, asked Minuccia's mother if the young girl would like to come and live with them, and work in the café.

Laura Borrelli, Juliano's sister and the family historian, explains:

'Minuccia leapt at the opportunity, and her passion for working in hospitality was ignited. However, she could not reach the levers on the coffee machine and needed a crate under her feet to use it!'

Juliano clearly enjoys the creative challenge of making new flavours, and products – like this celebratory cake.

Gelato cake made by Juliano Borrelli

These days, the cafe is licensed to sell beer and wine with food, with BYO limited to wine. Under the previous BYO license, the corkage charge had gradually increased – from 50c, to $1.50, then $2.50 – still improbably low. When customers began bringing eskies full of beer into the cafe, it was time to change to a different licence.

A busy Sunday at the Hamilton Food and Wine Festival,
23 February 2014
Photograph by Laura Borrelli

The long hours the Northern Star Cafe needed to be open has made huge demands on its owners over the past 60 years. I wondered how Jill and Juliano have managed to survive 18 years, and still thrive.

When they first purchased the cafe, they continued the 8 am – 9 pm opening hours of their predecessors for a few years. Then, as more cafes and coffee shops took up the breakfast concept, Jill and Juliano decided to leave the field to them and open later. Now, their hours are a more civilised 10 am to 9 pm. These are still long hours for the owners, by any standards of an average working day.

While their daughters were young, Jill limited herself to helping at lunch time. The cafe is closed on Sundays, and Juliano take Mondays off, relying on their staff. Once a week or so, they may not come in until a little later in the morning – no doubt an extremely welcome extra hour or two at home.

Relaxation beckons from 'the hallway' (2014)
Photograph by Craig Smith

Reliable, capable staff continue to be vital to the cafe, and there are as many as 9 on the roster. Jill and Juliano have been blessed to have some individuals stay with them for long periods – Maree McDonald has the record of 15 years employment. Relief cook Denise Willis has been with the Borrellis for 9 years; Sandie Watt for 12 years. Helen Di Claudio worked at the Northern Star Cafe for 13 years, for each of the three owners interviewed for this story.

‘I was part of the fittings, so to speak’, Helen says, ‘each time the cafe changed hands’.

The team at the Northern Star Cafe, around 2000
Back, L-R: Paul Connor (dec.), Juliano Borrelli, Maree McDonald
Front, L-R: Bronwyn Bryant, Jill Borrelli, Helen Di Claudio
Photograph from the personal collection of Juliano and Jill Borrelli

When the Borrellis purchased the Northern Star Cafe, they thought it would be for three years. Eighteen years later, they are still here, apparently enjoying the challenges of running a small business. Juliano has become more assertive in advertising his gelato, with a supersized gelato cone at the front of the cafe, and another on the awning above.

This giant gelato cone can’t be missed on Beaumont Street skyline
Photograph by Craig Smith, 2014

Daughter Amy has learned from watching her parents’ lifestyle. She says:

‘As a kid I always had a back-up plan to become a chef and run the cafe after Mum and Dad retired. After doing work placements in Year 11 at other cafes, and seeing how little some owners/chefs do, I found a real respect for my father, how hard he works and the hours he puts in. No one should have to work that hard and sacrifice so much'.
‘ I just could not do that.'
‘So head down, and into the books. Now, as a new graduate, all I can say is – thanks Dad, for showing me hard work does pay off’.

Juliano Borrelli at the gelato bar
Photograph from the personal collection of Juliano and Jill Borrelli


Pacing themselves against burnout by managing their hours has obviously helped both Jill and Juliano as they approach their 20th anniversary operating the Northern Star Cafe in April, 2015. But there are a couple of other things that have energised Juliano, as he continues to be the mainstay of the kitchen, cooking the food his parents cooked. One is finding his passion for hand made gelato. The other is this – a gift from his wife Jill that never fails to put a smile on his face.


Aboard the Vespa – Juliano and Jill Borrelli (2014)


Thanks to Ada Bizzarri, Lucia Sakoff, Phillip and Dianne King, Juliano and Jill Borrelli, and Laura Borrelli  for sharing their stories and photographs. Thanks also to Helen Di Claudio for her contribution. Craig Smith, thank you for the fabulous photographs.

Northern Star Café, February 2014
Photograph by Laura Borrelli


Monday, 3 February 2014

Sydney Junction Hotel - A Family Story

For six turbulent years a young English emigrant, son of a publican, pursued his small business dream as the licensee of the Sydney Junction Hotel, Hamilton. The magic of the coming of rail to Newcastle lit up his dream with the promise of prosperity.

It is a promise that could not be fulfilled.

Perhaps it is our independent nature, but Australians have had a love affair with small business since the earliest days of the colony. Today, almost half of all employment in Australia is provided by businesses employing less than 20 staff.[1]

This story begins in 1881 with the establishment of the Woods Family Hotel at 8-10 Beaumont Street, Hamilton. Charles Woods was the first licensee.

The hotel was close to one of Hamilton’s two railway lines – the Newcastle to Maitland line [2] opened in 1857 - but residents had only very limited access to it as there was no station. The other line, crossing Hamilton to the south, was a commercial one transporting coal from Hamilton pits to the AA Company’s staithes at Newcastle.

Hamilton must have a railway station

The case for a rail stop and platform at Hamilton mounted through the 1860s.

Goods and passengers carried by rail and destined for Hamilton would rattle straight past to Newcastle. From there, Hamilton passengers faced a three mile walk back; storekeepers’ supplies were transported by dray over roads reported to be almost impassable. Mail languished in Newcastle for two or three days before finding its way to Hamilton. Industries such as porcelain and glass were starting to flourish in Hamilton, and needed a local dispatch point.[3] By now, Hamilton’s population was around 1000.

It took 15 years from the opening of the line, but ultimately Hamilton got its railway platform.

On 19 June 1872, after three years of intense lobbying by local residents, a platform at Hamilton for the great Northern Line was opened. Public meetings had been held, petitions circulated and the Newcastle Chronicle provided vocal support.

What was the result? Two 120 foot platforms, with no railway buildings.

The platforms were provided –

‘...for the convenience of those foot passengers who had no objection to climb the fences on either side. A road six feet wide had been cut through the scrub on the Hamilton side by the municipal council....[4]

Lucky Hamilton residents! Hamilton station was not for the fainthearted – or for women with long dresses, mothers with prams, or injured miners with dodgy knees. To say nothing of the elderly or the disabled. Residents from the Tighes Hill end had no access road at all.

While having a scheduled train stop at Hamilton, and a platform, was a great step forward, the job was only half done. Public agitation about poor access and lack of shelter on the platforms, especially for women, continued.

A new name for changing times

It was in this environment in 1884 that Charles Henry Eyre became the licensee of the Woods Family Hotel. Access to train services was providing unprecedented opportunities for people to move around for employment, leisure and shopping, as well as for the movement of goods and produce. While no doubt the inadequate station facilities at Hamilton left a sour taste, astute business people would have realised that improvements must come in time.

Charles Henry Eyre (1851-1906)
Photograph from the collection of Lorraine Castle

In 1886, permission was given by the Newcastle Licensing Court to Mr G A Woods to change the name of Woods Family Hotel to the Sydney Junction Hotel. Mr Woods must have been an entrepreneur who could anticipate the benefits that would flow from the completion of the Sydney to Newcastle rail link.

Over the years 1886 to 1889, the challenges of the difficult terrain between Sydney and Gosford were progressively overcome. The last piece of the puzzle was the spectacular Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, and the Sydney to Newcastle rail link was finished.

Original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, c1880
Photograph courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle

It would now be possible for passengers from Maitland to change trains at Hamilton and travel to Gosford and Sydney. Hamilton became known as ‘the Sydney junction’. A hotel in such a prime spot on Beaumont Street, with the easily remembered name of the Sydney Junction Hotel, could not help but be successful. Train travel meant thirsty customers for the hotel bar, and overnight stays for weary business men and commercial travellers.

Surely now a better station would have to be built, as Hamilton became a rail transport hub for travellers between Maitland and Sydney?

The Eyre family and the Sydney Junction Hotel

These developments must have filled Charles Eyre and his wife Ann (Annie) with great hope for their future.

Charles and Annie emigrated from England to Australia in 1875, with their young family. By the time they took over the hotel license in 1884, Charles and Annie had six children - the youngest a year old, the eldest 14. Annie herself was just 31, and with no family in Australia, her daily life must have been enormously challenging. They lived in a house adjacent to the Sydney Junction Hotel.

Sydney Junction Hotel and residence on the right
Detail from Hamilton Railway Station, Hamilton, NSW, 12 April 1906
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

In 1885, their seventh child was born, a son Ernest.

In 1887, 3 years after taking over the license, and a year after the hotel name was changed, Cooper Taylor Eyre was born at the Sydney Junction Hotel. He was Charles’ and Annie’s eighth child.

Typhoid fever

Typhoid fever was endemic in Hamilton, and it is thought that the bacterium was probably carried by the majority of its population.

The bacterium thrives in crowded, insanitary conditions, and a vaccine would not be developed until 1895.Typhoid fever is a bacterial disease that is transmitted by ingesting food or water contaminated by the faeces of an infected person. At this time the connection had not been made between the disease and the careless disposal of human waste.

Hamilton Municipal Council reports from the 1880s show Council struggling to come to grips with what needed to be done. During an outbreak in 1885, for example, Council decided to purchase thirty shillings worth of disinfectant to disinfect the houses where fever had occurred. That would not have helped much – a wholesale overhaul of the sanitary and water systems was needed.

Charles Eyre had a cousin Henry who lived at nearby Woodville. It seems that Annie and Charles were nursing this cousin and his family through typhoid, around the time of Cooper’s birth. At the same time, one of their own sons had pneumonia. Henry and his baby son died of typhoid.

It must have seemed like a miracle, that pregnant Annie and her family escaped the scourge of typhoid, after being in such close proximity to their infected and suffering relatives.

However, Charles and Annie would not escape hardship. Emotionally, physically, and financially, they were struggling. In a heart wrenching decision, they resolved to find foster parents for their own baby Cooper. He was six weeks old.

William and Mary Harrison were a couple the Eyre family probably knew in England; they too had emigrated and now lived at West Wallsend with a stepson. At 6 weeks old, Cooper was passed over to the care of the Harrisons, where he became known as Cooper Harrison.

I learned of this story from Newcastle family history researcher Lorraine Castle. Her grandfather was Cooper Eyre. She is the great great grand daughter of Charles and Ann Eyre.

On 5 June 1888, the Newcastle and Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate reported that at about 1 am, the previous morning, Charles (Henry) Eyre ‘broke a blood vessel’. Two doctors were called, and after their intervention, he was reported to have ‘somewhat improved’. [5] Was this a small stroke, perhaps stress induced?

In 1889, there were further stresses for Charles Eyre. He made four Court appearances charged with trading outside hotel hours, one in 1889 and three in March, 1890.

It may have been that these events were the last straw for Charles Eyre, struggling to keep his business afloat.

Community pressure for a proper railway station was once again mounting. In April 1890, the Newcastle Morning Herald reported that a written commitment had been made by the NSW government for a station at Hamilton. It would have a large platform, waiting rooms, booking office, refreshment rooms, officers’ rooms, a high level bridge and footbridge for the Beaumont Street crossing. [6]

Hamilton, at last, would a rail transport hub.

It was too late for Charles Eyre and his dreams of prosperity, buoyed by the coming of rail. He had given up the license for the Sydney Junction Hotel on 14 March 1890.

In the event, Charles opted for more secure employment, joining the railways as a labourer. Charles and Annie had three more children after Charles left the hotel as licensee, making a family of eleven. A labourer’s wage would have barely provided the necessities. In a tragic accident while changing the points at Hamilton Station, Charles’ right arm became caught and was ripped off.

Hamilton Railway Station, Hamilton, NSW, 12 April 1906
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Charles Eyre died in 1906 at the age of 56, the year this photograph was taken.

Postscript for Cooper Eyre

Cooper returned to live with his birth mother in 1908 at the age of 21. His birth father Charles had died just two years before. I can imagine Annie’s delight in having her son restored to her – and can only hope their relationship flourished. Cooper worked as a labourer and was perhaps able to help Annie support the younger children.

Cooper enlisted in the AIF in 1915, fighting in France and Belgium. Wounded on two occasions, he was returned home, unfit for duty. He married Ethel Wind, and they had three children. Although his occupation was a Platelayer, he became a school maintenance man and gardener. Lorraine, his grand daughter, recalls her childish pride at ‘knowing’ Mr Eyre when he visited her school to repair something.

Cooper Taylor Eyre (1887 - 1967)
Photograph from the collection of Lorraine Castle

Cooper lived at Swan Street, Hamilton until 1950, when he retired and moved to Marks Point.

Long view of the Sydney Junction Hotel

In the 83 years between 1881 and 1964, the Sydney Junction Hotel had 19 licensees.[7] The average length of stay of a licensee works out at less than four and a half years. Charles Eyre held on for six years, and this compares well against the average.

It was not unusual for a miner to become a publican after a serious injury in the pits. Nor was it unusual for a wife to take over the license after the death of her husband. For example, we don't know the story behind the Atkinsons, but we do know from the records that Thomas Atkinson took up the Sydney Junction Hotel licence in 1905. Things must not have gone well, however, because Mary Atkinson became the licensee in 1907. She held this for only eighteen months, until August 1908.

The record for the longest licensee, at least up until 1964, must go to the Sidebottom family. Herbert Sidebottom was licensee from 1931 to his death in 1947. His widow Alice became the licensee and was still living at the hotel in 1964. Her son Albert Sidey (his surname had been changed) was Hotel Manager and barman.

The Sydney Junction Hotel has changed in appearance over its lifetime. Additions were made in 1921. In 1941 the hotel was demolished and rebuilt. There were rumours of a large fire in 1939, but this cannot be substantiated. A fire damaging an ageing weatherboard building would not have been uncommon.

Some of the building materials from the demolished Sydney Junction and other hotels went to the Builders Exchange, where they were recycled for other building uses.

The Newcastle Morning Herald reported [8] that the new structure was to be a two storey brick building, with ceilings of stamped steel. On the ground floor would be large entrance hall, dining room, kitchen, and saloon bar. A main staircase would lead upstairs to six double bedrooms and seven single – ‘all of generous proportions, well lighted and well ventilated’. Each room would have a basin, with hot and cold water. A large lounge would open onto balconies. Two bathroom blocks would cater for staff, customers and guests. The cellar under the public bar would be 68 feet by 30 feet.

Built by J Davies and Son Builders and Castleden and Sara, Architects, this is the building standing today.

Sydney Junction Hotel, Hamilton (1959)
Rebuilt c.1941
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Region Library

Some people are ahead of their time. They can visualise the future, and act. However, circumstances beyond their control may mean things don't happen as quickly as expected. They catch the wave, but the wave falls flat and they are stranded. Others, just a little later, come in. They benefit from the groundwork laid by their predecessors, and catch the wave right in to the shore. Thus it was for Charles Henry Eyre and the coming of rail to Hamilton. He was a man ahead of his time.

Sydney Junction Hotel, Hamilton (2014)


Special thanks to Lorraine Castle, who undertook the research on the Eyre family and the Sydney Junction Hotel. Her research is continuing.

William Cooper Eyre
Long time Hamilton resident, grandson of Charles Henry Eyre, father of Lorraine Castle, died 2011 aged 92
Photograph from the collection of Lorraine Castle

If you can add to or clarify anything in this post, please contact me at

[1]  Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. “Key Statistics Australian Small Business”. Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra, 2011.
[2] This was the first section (Northern section) of the Main North Line (or the Great Northern Line), from Newcastle to Maitland, built in 1857. Later extensions were built through the Hunter, to Tamworth, Armidale and Wallangarra in Queensland.
[3] Peter Murray describes the case for a railway station at Hamilton in “From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848-1921”. Peter Murray, Newcastle 2006.
[4] Newcastle Morning Herald, 9/12/1921.
[5] Newcastle and Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, 5/6/1888.
[6] Newcastle Morning Herald, 3/4/1890, 17/4/1890.
[7] Documentation of licensees until 1964 has been undertaken by Lorraine Castle.
[8] Newcastle Herald, 1/2/1941