Showing posts with label Hamilton Italians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamilton Italians. Show all posts

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Danilo's Restaurant and the secret of success

‘The secret of success,’ Danny Franco told his three sons, ‘is to always be the first.’

A pioneer of Newcastle catering and hospitality, restaurateur Danilo (Danny) and his wife Onorina (Nori) founded the stylish Hamilton restaurant Danilo’s. When he was speaking of success in business, Danny Franco knew what he was talking about.

In the course of researching Hidden Hamilton, Danilo’s Restaurant cropped up from time to time, but it was not until Danny’s son Eros Franco contacted me that I learned the full story. Not least was how Danilo demonstrated his secret of success in his own business enterprise, one that proudly bore his name for 23 years even after he had retired.

Danny’s interest in food began in the small grocery business he ran with his brother in their home village Ramon di Loria in the northern Italian province of Treviso. Attracted by the Australian government’s offer of migrant sponsorship, he boarded the liner ‘Australia’ in 1951, leaving his wife and sons Joe and Eros to follow later if he did well.

Disembarking in Melbourne, Danny quickly secured work. He began an apprenticeship in the kitchens of the prestigious Astoria Hotel in Spencer Street. Working two jobs, Danny was able to bring his family to join him in 1952.

A timely visit to Nori’s brother in Broadmeadow, a suburb of the hard working industrial city of Newcastle, revealed a wealth of opportunity for an aspiring restaurateur. In 1957 Danny moved his family – now with three boys – from Melbourne to Newcastle.

Danny’s exposure to how things were done in a first class metropolitan hotel, together with the expert tutelage he had received there, were the foundation for what he would bring to Newcastle. Danny was prepared to start small, but importantly, the business would be his own.

The first independent venture of Danny and Nori Franco in Australia was the Hamilton Expresso Coffee Bar at 78 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, in 1957.

 View from the street – the Hamilton Expresso Coffee Bar, 78 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 
late 1950s (Franco family collection)

Serving great coffee, Italian-style, would be essential to the success of the coffee bar.

Danny Franco imported one of Newcastle’s first lever coffee machines for the 
Expresso Coffee Bar. A mural painted by Newcastle artist and restaurateur Giuseppe Risicato 
can be seen on the back wall (Franco family collection)

Then there was food. Nori was an essential partner in this initiative, working in the kitchen under Danny’s guidance. There were no chefs in those early days. ‘I boiled water and it used to get lumps!’ she would joke disparagingly about her cooking skills. But she proved to be an exceptional student, later leading a team of cooks and a kitchen hand.

‘Mum preferred to be in the background,’ explains Eros.

Onorina (Nori) Franco, 1950s (Franco family collection)

The Expresso Coffee Bar menu was traditional Australian café food and a selection of authentic Italian dishes. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served. It was not uncommon to see waiting customers queuing down Beaumont Street, especially after a cinema session at the Roxy Theatre.

Small businesses – especially involving husband and wife – can be hard on family life. Danny and Nori took the difficult decision to send their boys to boarding school, initially in Aberdeen (near Muswellbrook) and then in Sydney.  

Outside 78 Beaumont Street, with the family Holden  – (L-R) N Franco, Tony O’Beirne (of the 
wine bar family) Joe Franco (higher), Robert Franco (lower) and Eros Franco 
(Franco family collection)

Danny Franco became famed for the fabulous spreads he created, especially for parties and weddings. His antipasto extravaganzas were as elaborate as any produced at the Astoria.

Danny Franco with one of his antipasto creations, Danilo’s Restaurant, Hamilton 
(Franco family collection)

A dramatic antipasto by Danny Franco, prepared for an Italian function at the Newcastle Town Hall. The she-wolf and tiny figures of twins Romulus and Remus are from the myth about 
the founding of ancient Rome (Franco family collection).

Obtaining a liquor licence for a café was not easy at that time, and the Expresso was one of the first to do so.

Danny Franco at the bar of Expresso Coffee Bar – milkshakes stand side by side with beer (Franco family collection)

Six years later, in 1963, Danny purchased the menswear section of Gow's department store. He built a new building at 66 Beaumont Street, setting up Danilo’s Restaurant. Thus, Danny would move his enterprise from a successful small café to an even more successful restaurant in a new setting. Seating 110 diners, this was to be a stylish, fine dining restaurant that evoked the spirit of the Astoria.

Invitation to the opening of Danilo’s Restaurant, 66 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, Saturday 23 November 1963. Danny Franco was an active member of the Hamilton-Broadmeadow Lions Club (Franco family collection)

Danilo’s would become the place to go to celebrate a special occasion – engagements, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays - whether for an intimate couple, or a big party. White linen tablecloths and napkins, crystal wine glasses, gleaming silver cutlery, attentive wait staff, fresh flowers, candlelight, and sumptuous food – for so many Novocastrians, eating at Danilo’s was an experience and a place to remember.

‘You just felt special walking in there,’ said one Novocastrian, commenting on Danilo’s on the Lost Newcastle Facebook page. ‘A wonderful restaurant owned by the nicest people ever!’ said another. [1]

It was also a place where Newcastle business executives could impress potential clients, with regular visits from BHP, Goninans, Ampol, Brambles and British Paints along with many others holding accounts with the restaurant. Some came for lunch and dinner!

A number of celebrities and parliamentarians also dined at Danilo’s. Among the many were politicians such as Sir Allen Fairhall (Federal Minister for Defence) and Milton Morris (NSW Minister for Transport), actor Chips Rafferty, golfer Gary Player, rugby league footballer Johnny Raper MBE, motor sports personality Ken Tubman, and barefoot water skier Garry Barton.

Eros Franco with Danilo’s Guest Book, which includes signatures of celebrities such as golfers Gary Player and Peter Thomson, and actor Chips Rafferty (Franco family collection).

The opening 1963 menu was extensive and ambitious – four lobster dishes, seven types of steak, six chicken dishes, pasta, omelettes, prawns, oysters, cold buffet and salads, light refreshments such as toasted sandwiches and asparagus fingers, coffee, many cheeses (including Italian and Australian), and continental cake. The wine list too, was impressive, and included Penfold’s Grange. Danny’s personal reputation as a connoisseur of fine wines would become widely known.

‘Danilo’s always had fresh seafood and produce,’ Eros tells me. ‘ Back in those days the fishermen would throw the calamari over the side of the boat and Dad would take it off their hands.’

‘One of Dad’s traits was that he could take orders for three courses from eight people, remembering exactly who ordered which dish,’ Eros says.

Danny Franco continued to record ‘firsts’ for the Newcastle catering scene. Next, with live music – a quartet, including a double bass and piano to entertain diners. This was short lived and soon replaced with an organist/pianist, Arni Zigurs, and a dance floor. In the early 1970s, a cocktail bar was part of the décor of the restaurant.

Cocktail bar, Danilo’s Restaurant, Hamilton, 1978 (Franco family collection)

 Creating an experience to remember: (L-R) Danny Franco, head waitress and wait staff, and far right, musician Arni Zigurs (Franco family collection)

After leaving school in 1968, Eros joined the family business, spending some time training in hotel and catering management at the East Sydney Technical College. When Eros’s brother Joe became part of the team in the early 1970s, Danilo’s Restaurant was a real family business.

A normal working day at the restaurant would start at 6.00 or 6.30 am and finish anywhere between midnight and 3 am six days a week. There would be a reprieve for about two hours in the afternoon. But then, Sundays were not always free, either.

Eros explains:

‘On Sundays they often used to have picnics which were to die for. There would be oysters, prawns and calamari along with antipasto, barbeque steaks and the occasional suckling pig, and desserts. Dad would often invite five or six families along to these.’

As fast food caught the popular imagination, and competition increased, Danilo’s introduced the smorgasbord.

Eros Franco with a decorated ham, the central feature of Danilo’s smorgasbord lunch 
(Franco family collection)

Danny and Nori retired in 1974, having achieved 17 years in their restaurant businesses in Hamilton. As well as wanting a break from the unremitting labour of restaurant life, Danny was a keen golfer and a popular golfing partner. He won the Merewether ‘C’ Grade Championship in 1969 with his infamous one-handed putting.

Nori focused on her home. Eros writes:

‘Going shopping for our domestic groceries left her somewhat confounded as a 200 pound bag of potatoes, a 50 pound bag of carrots and a couple of boxes of tomatoes might just be a little too much for a family of three!’

Nori took up golf, learned how to drive, gardened and sewed. All the things she never had time for during her 6+ days a week working life. Danny and Nori enjoyed inviting friends for dinner parties, and over the years that followed, loved spending Sunday evenings with their ever-growing family.

Eros and Joe took on the responsibility for running Danilo’s for a further two years after their parents withdrew from the business.

Eros told me that late one night, while putting out the garbage bins, they noticed an usual sight. A small herd of cows was meandering along Beaumont Street. The young men acted swiftly and drove the cows around the back of their building and into the car park. The gate was locked behind them. While the thought of ‘all that rump steak’ was appealing, Eros and Joe did telephone the police. It transpired that the cows were escapees from the nearby Broadmeadow showground, and were duly returned.

 In 1976, Danny decided to formally retire, and lease out the restaurant. A condition of lease was that the name Danilo’s be retained for the duration of the 5 year lease. Danny and Nori wrote a personal, typed letter to ‘friends and customers’ telling them of their decision, and explaining the new arrangements.

‘We have worked very hard for many years and now we look forward to a happy retirement,’ they wrote.

‘In Newcastle we have seen our three boys grow to manhood, since which time we have gained two daughters-in-law, with a third coming up, and also two lovely grandchildren – all true-blue Australians, and thus we count our blessings.’

This has now grown to eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

 Danilo’s would operate until Christmas Eve, 1976, reopening in January 1977 under lease to Harry Van Der Wyst, formerly chef of the Glacier Restaurant next door to Danilo’s. Eros and Joe were free to seek new, independent careers. Joe went into concreting and Eros continued in catering for a further three years before joining Joe in concreting and then, in 1983, moving to Tomago Aluminium.

A rare street view of Danilo’s, 66 Beaumont Street Hamilton, late 1960s 
(Franco family collection).

Danilo’s was eventually sold to Harry Van Der Wyst, and Danny Franco’s interest in the restaurant ceased in 1981. Neil Papworth succeeded Harry Van Der Wyst as owner/manager. The restaurant that had maintained the Danilo’s name since its inception closed in 1999, when all furnishings and fittings were auctioned off.

Times had already begun to change. Eating out was becoming a more frequent event, more casual and with faster through-put of customers. Take-away food outlets swamped our cities and towns. The fine dining experience, enjoyed over a whole evening, was becoming a thing of the past. Danny and Nori celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Chuddley’s in Beaumont Street, Hamilton – another fine dining venue that like Danilo’s, would also eventually succumb to the forces of social change.

Danny and Nori Franco at the Opera House, Sydney, 1970s 
(Franco family collection)

As I leafed through the photographs for this story one last time, I reflected on the shared lives of Danny and Nori Franco. They were remarkable people – adventuring to a new country, starting afresh, having a dream, taking risks, and achieving financial security for their family. They also made a remarkable contribution to the suburb of Hamilton – and to wider Newcastle. Not just generating jobs for others through employment and purchasing, but innovating, as Danny put into practice his motto of ‘always be the first.

Danilo’s has gone. Not gone, however, are the warmly remembered experiences of dining at Danilo’s. Approaching her 90th birthday, Nori is very proud of ‘her Danny.’ She often looks over the family photos and reminisces about the times at Danilo’s and the people they met.

As one appreciative long-ago diner commented on Lost Newcastle Facebook, following hundreds of warm comments about Danilo’s:

‘Danny and Nori Franco would love to know how highly regarded their restaurant was.’

Vale Danilo Franco 1919 – 2000.


Thank you to Eros Franco for sharing this information and providing photographs.

Note on comments from the Lost Newcastle Facebook page

Two posts on the Lost Newcastle Facebook page in 2013 and 2014 asked ‘Who remembers Danilo’s?’

Hundreds did!

The posts generated over 150 comments, some of which have been reflected in this story already.

Overwhelmingly, respondents wrote of a memorable event associated with a night out at Danilo’s, or how their horizons had been expanded by dining there. One spoke of celebrating her 16th birthday with her family, and the embarrassment of having her photo taken for next day’s local paper.

‘My first date in 1973 took me there,’ wrote another. Others commented –

‘It was the place to go for an anniversary or a birthday. You just felt special walking into it.’
‘Had our first dinner date there!’
‘Had my 21st there 40 years ago – great meals and fantastic cocktails.’
‘Danilo’s was very special, perfect food, service and décor.’
‘Very special times there.’

What made the experience memorable?

‘One of the best fine dining restaurants in Newcastle,’ said one.

Another offered this description:
‘The restaurant was dimly lit and elegantly decorated with antiques. … you were greeted on arrival and the door was opened for you on departure. You were seated at the table with your chair lifted out for you …your serviette placed on your lap.’

A number praised the beautiful music of the pianist Arni Zigurs.

One woman who worked in the kitchen described what fun it was; how she learned Italian from the women (‘there were no chefs in those days’). ‘It was nothing to see the lobsters/crabs walking around the kitchen …Danny would drive to Sydney to collect the pheasant from the plane from Europe ….they were hard workers’.

To sum up:

‘Danilo was a lovely, funny, generous man.’

‘A wonderful restaurant owned by the nicest people ever! It was a place for special occasions. Just gorgeous!’

‘Danny and Nori Franco would love to know how highly regarded their restaurant was.’

Carla Brinkworth, a keen member of the Lost Newcastle Facebook group and staffer at 
Delikacies (formerly Pina Deli) celebrated her 21st birthday at Danilo’s in 1983. Her question to the group in 2014 - ‘Who remembers Danilo’s in Hamilton?’ attracted 95 comments and over 200 ‘likes’. A 2013 posting had drawn a similar response.

[1] Refer to Note at the end of this post for other comments made on the Lost Newcastle Facebook page. No names have been used for this story, but the original comments and many more can be found by becoming of member of the Lost Newcastle Facebook group, and entering “Danilo’s’ in the search bar. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A community finds its place - the Lettesi story

‘Why did we leave? Why wouldn’t we leave? We had lost everything.’

In the Hamilton home of Tony (Antonio) and Pina D’Accione, I am listening to Ralph (Raffaele) Della Grotta with his wife Maria tell of their experiences as a member of the Lettesi community in Newcastle.

The Lettesi [1] are part of a unique community of extended family members of some 145 households where one or both partners were born in the Abruzzo village of Lettopalena in Italy, and who settled in Newcastle between 1950 and 1956. [2] Two similar Lettesi communities are located in America and Argentina. [3]

I first wanted to write about the unique system of support that emerged to sustain this community as they forged new lives. As I began, I quickly realized that it would be impossible to do so without trying to communicate something of the larger context of the Lettesi story. Because – like the Lettesi themselves – it is all connected.

The pioneers

The Australian story of the Lettesi begins in 1925 with the arrival in Brisbane of Giacomo (Jim) De Vitis. In 1927, he was joined by his brother in law Arcangelo Rossetti. Arcangelo’s sons followed - Antonio in 1929 and Giacomo (Jim) in 1931. [4] The men settled around Proserpine, in north Queensland, and found work in the cane fields. By 1938, Antonio and Giacomo Rossetti had purchased their own farms in the area. These farms enabled the brothers to sponsor others from their home village.

So began a chain migration process, initiated in particular by Antonio Rossetti. With the prospect of work on the cane farms, many men from Lettopalena emigrated, first to cut cane, then sometimes moving elsewhere to find jobs that suited them better. Decades later, Tony and Ralph would be among them. [5]

Making music on the Rossetti cane farm, Proserpine, Queensland early 1950s
Music provided a welcome distraction from the tough working conditions
Photograph courtesy of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

The industrial city of Newcastle in NSW held the promise of a wide range of job opportunities and it was inevitable that some would find their way there. One man was a key link in the movement of Italian migrants between Proserpine and Newcastle – Giovanni De Vitis.

Giovanni (John) followed his father Giacomo De Vitis to Australia in 1932, aged 17. He moved to Newcastle in 1947 and found permanent work in the dockyards.  For six months of the year, in the cane-cutting off season, men from Proserpine came to Newcastle; John helped them find work and accommodation. Today, he would be known as 'the fixer.' Over time, many settled permanently in Newcastle. Initially, suburbs like Mayfield, Tighes Hill and Islington were popular as they were cheap, and located close to industries.

Giovanni De Vitis with daughters Rosa (left) and Franca (right), late 1950s. 
Photograph courtesy of Franca Ridewood, née De Vitis

Ralph Della Grotta arrived in Australia in 1953 aged 17; Tony D’Accione in 1956 aged 18; their first jobs were cutting cane near Proserpine. Soon, however, both young men moved south to Newcastle, gaining a variety of experience in different jobs. Eventually, Ralph took up barbering, and in 1973 opened his own business in Beaumont Street, Hamilton. Tony and Pina became well known as owners of the continental delicatessen Pina Deli between 1980 and 1991. 

It was not unusual for fit and able men from subsistence agricultural villages like Lettopalena to work abroad, so as to better support their families. But what had happened to transform what had begun as an emigration trickle to Australia in the 1920s into a flow in the 1950s?

The story is one of devastation and terror, and it is in danger of disappearing.

Caught in the cross fire – a village destroyed

In the terrible winter of 1943, during World War II, the village of Lettopalena became caught between the Allied forces moving north from southern Italy, and the German army trying to hold them back.

Picture Lettopalena, perched on a narrow ledge, backed against the wall of the great Maiella mountain range, overlooking a ravine of the Aventino River. Some 780 people [6] lived in this town, with a heritage stretching back to the 12th century.

Since many men were away at the war, mainly women, children and the elderly remained.

The German command decided that this locality was critical to their defence strategy. For their own protection and to clear the space for battle, the residents would be forced to leave their homes, and prevented from returning.

No one really explained this to the people of Lettopalena. Instead, on 18 November 1943 forty armed soldiers drove them out, across the river to Colle delle Mandre, where the animal stables and sheep pens were located. Confused and frightened, some sheltered in the stables, while others went to Abbey of Santa Maria di Monteplanizio or a nearby church for the night.

Early next morning, 19 November, 1943 over in the town, the soldiers were busy. Preparations were being made for something the people sensed was deeply ominous. Everyone gathered near the stables to watch.

The first blast went off at 9.30 am. It was a deafening, harsh sound…the house of Vincenzo Martinelli, the miller, was the first to shake, then in an instant was ripped apart by powerful explosives…dust and smoke engulfed the site of the former building. The miller’s father …sobbed as he lowered his head in his hands.’ [7]

Systematically, the soldiers went from house to house, blowing up a building every two or three minutes with precision timing.

Six year old Tony D’Accione was in the crowd; Ralph Della Grotta too, just a little older.

Maria Della Grotta vividly remembers watching the fires. Just three years old at the time, she may not have understood the significance of the tragedy, but her small body would surely have absorbed the howls of anguish [8] that rose from the crowd.

By 4 pm that day, Lettopalena no longer existed. Dust, rubble and debris were everywhere.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Nicholas, once the heart of Lettopalena
Photograph courtesy of Carlo Finocchietti [9]

Next morning, the soldiers marshalled the people out of the stables and nearby buildings. As they left, the stores of hay were torched. Roofs collapsed, leaving the buildings derelict and dangerous.

As the full force of winter set in, months of suffering, fear and uncertainty followed. Tony remembers returning with his father to what was left of their house in the ruins to salvage tiles for makeshift repairs to the stable roof.

Crops had been trampled, livestock stolen or scattered. Flour was like gold. The women concealed small supplies in their garments. Foraging in the fields to find something – anything - to feed the family was a daily challenge.

Late in January, 1944 the Germans began to put into effect the plan of transferring the population out of the strategic buffer zone. Rounded up at rifle point, frightened and weakened by hunger, the people were forced to trek through the snow to Palena, the next town.

Tony D’Accione endured this terrible forced march. From Palena they were to go up and over the 300m Forchetta gap, to an unknown destination.  

‘A death sentence could not have provoked greater alarm…in the darkness, during a snowstorm…How could they do it with small children, elderly people, women weakened by days and weeks of hardship, the sick?’ [10]

Fifteen died on this journey which, it transpired, was to Pescocostanzo and on to Rocca Pia. The first to die were the children – their deaths often not noticed as they were carried in their mother’s arms. [11]

The epic stories of many who survived this period of forced wandering and many who did not, are well documented. [12] Separated from their homes and livelihoods, some managed, like homing pigeons, to find their way back, only to be chased out again. There were accidents on the treacherous tracks; frostbite, injuries and deaths in the deep snow; escapes and sabotage; even a child was born on the way.

And those who were children or young adults, like my hosts, carried their memories with them to new lives, in Newcastle.

An artist at work recreating Lettopalena, based on a rare original photograph
The Commune of the new town of Lettapalena commissioned an artist to paint a memorial wall in the new  town, 2012
Photograph courtesy of Mayor Carolina De Vitis, Lettopalena

Taking care of one’s own

It is no wonder, then, that having endured such trauma, the Lettesi would cluster together, and support one another. Newcastle researcher Dr Judith Galvin has studied this community, travelled to the new town of Lettapalena, and walked in the ruins of the old. She has described the interconnected kinship system that not only drove the emigration process to Australia but also generated the system of support that sustained the community during resettlement. [13]

From the early 1950s, when the Lettesi network helped community members find jobs and homes in Newcastle, an informal system to support those encountering hard times also operated. Judith Galvin explains:

‘If a breadwinner was injured or a family member died, leaders would emerge, arrange what they could, do the rounds of the community, collecting money to assist the family’[14]

Over 80 donations were collected for widow Orsina De Vitis, then living near Proserpine, when husband Giovanni died suddenly in 1969, aged 54. 
Silvana and Frank De Vitis, with daughters Enza and Rosa, drove from Newcastle to Proserpine to deliver the donations, worth about $1500 in today's currency.
Documents courtesy of Franca Ridewood née De Vitis.

That year, in 1969, the structure was formalized with the establishment of an elected committee, the Lettesi Committee. The Lettesi Health Fund was administered by the Committee. Later, the Committee became known as the Lettopalena Association of Newcastle Inc.

Community members who wished to participate paid a weekly or annual membership fee, thus financing benefits for eligible members in need. Modest though the scheme was, it must have been like having a health fund and unemployment benefit, rolled into one.

The Foundation President of the Lettesi Committee was Nicolino De Vitis. Nic was one of twelve Lettesi whose immigration had been sponsored by the Australian government. A caring and respected community leader, Nic went on to hold various Committee positions continuously from 1969 until 1982.

Six of twelve men from Lettopalena sponsored by the Australian government 
Bonegilla Migrant Camp, Victoria, 1952
 (L-R) Benito Di Paolo, Berardino D’Amico, Nicolino De Vitis, Concezio Tarantini, Emidio Rossetti, Paolo Palmieri
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

Antonio (Tony) Della Grotta, brother to Ralph, followed Nic De Vitis as President. Judith Galvin explained to me the immeasurable contribution that Tony Della Grotta made in the early years of Lettesi settlement in Newcastle.

‘He was everybody’s social worker,’ she said. ‘He gave his heart and soul, and whole energy to helping others in every way imaginable.’

Among the twelve sponsored by the Australian government, Tony Della Grotta was six times President of the Committee, once Vice President and five times Secretary. Tony Della Grotta and later, Tony D’Accione became the longest serving Presidents. Tony D’Accione was a member of the Committee from 1970 to 1986, serving as President from 1976 to 1986, once as Vice President and four times as Treasurer. The community leadership  provided by Tony D’Accione is widely appreciated and acknowledged.

Ralph Della Grotta, like his brother Antonio, also served his community on the Committee. He was Vice President once and Secretary on six occasions. Others who made important contributions included Jimmy Gizzi, Frank De Vitis, John Palmieri, Giovanni Di Claudio and Domenico Palmieri.

Over time, as the community became more self sufficient, and other national safety nets were put in place, the role of the Lettopalena Association changed.

Social and recreational activities became more important, providing a chance for Lettesi to gather together, renew their bonds of friendship, and enjoy themselves. As their families became established, and their children grew up, it may have become possible for some to leave memories of past hardships behind.

Picnics were a popular, easily organized social activity for members of the Lettesi community, 
late 1950s
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

Dances were held four times a year, associated with festivals at Easter and Christmas/New Year, as well in August and October.

Before they were married – at a Lettopalena Association dance, Ralph Della Grotta 
and Maria née Martinelli, late 1950s
Photograph courtesy of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

A local hall would be hired and taken over for the occasion. The men cleaned and set up the space; the women moved in and cooked for the whole day, usually serving a substantial meal of pasta, main course and cakes. After midnight, when it was all over, the men disposed of bottles and other rubbish, and the women tackled the piles of dishes. As always, a small, core group of families provided most of the volunteer labour.

‘We’d be so tired,’ Tony says, ‘but then we’d recover and in a few months, do it all over again.’

‘What did you like best about those times?’ I ask.

‘It was the togetherness,’ responds Maria. ‘Our kids grew up together. We shared everything, and had such fun.’

Dances were events for the whole family – three Nonnas watch the action
(L-R) Marie De Vitis, Maria Di Claudio, Anna (Rosa) Martinelli
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

The community could be readily mobilised for special events.

Fundraising dance for victims of the Friuli earthquake, attended by over 300 Lettesi, 
Transport Hall Hamilton, 1976
We were squeezed in like sardines’
Photograph from the collection of Antonio and Pina D’Accione

Those who were once the driving force behind the Lettopalena Association are now ageing. Still, the committee continues, served loyally by Croce Di Stefano, Angelo Thodas, Sergio Pigliacampo, Angelo Rossetti, Tony D’Accione and Ralph Della Grotta.

Large self-catered events are a thing of the past – it’s easier to meet friends in a local coffee shop, pub or club.

Gathering for bocce at the Highfields Azzurri Club, early 2000s
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

The women continue to celebrate important milestones by going out to lunch. And this year, 2015, Association members will come together for a Christmas lunch in a local restaurant.

Celebrating the 50th birthday of Maria della Grotta (centre), Hamilton 1990
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

A community reclaimed

Judith Galvin described the Lettesi as ‘a community in search of place.’ [15]

By 1976, when she conducted a year of in depth interviews for her research, Galvin found that Hamilton had become the focus of Lettesi identity. She noted that from as early as 1957, the community had begun to show a preference for Hamilton over nearby suburbs, and this preference continued. [16] Known as ‘Little Italy’ and Little Lettopalena’ [17] Hamilton had become the preferred place to live for a majority of Lettesi. There were shops where people felt at home; friends and relatives lived nearby and Beaumont Street was where you’d bump into people you knew.

Many Lettesi in Newcastle still remember being driven from their homes, and the desperate efforts of their families to find their way back – regardless of what they would find when they arrived.

Yet some things defied destruction - shared values and beliefs, kinship networks, their care for one another, and their sense of identity.

And many of them brought all this, finally, to Hamilton, where ‘a village within a village’ has taken root and grown.

The Lettesi had found their place.

Over time, new generations of Lettesi have taken their families to other Newcastle suburbs, to other Australian cities and even overseas. Still, something unique remains in Hamilton.

Leafing through the pages of Judith Galvin’s study of the Lettesi, my eye is caught by a quote from an unnamed interviewee:

‘It’s the places you’ve been to, the places you live – like a bird comes back to where it’s been – to the places that are familiar.’ [18]

Because this group of people once lost everything, and had to begin all over again, the best elements of their lives have been transposed from Lettopalena. Hamilton has been changed irrevocably. That is their legacy.

At home, Hamilton, 2015
(L-R) Maria and Ralph Della Grotta, Tony and Pina D’Accione

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


Thank you to Tony and Pina D’Accione, and Ralph and Maria Della Grotta for sharing their stories, photographs and resources.

The Lettopalena Association would like to thank everyone who has volunteered their time and effort over the years in support of the community.

If any reader would like to share further information or photographs, please email

Memorial mass held in the ruins of the church, where the village 
of Lettopalena once stood, 2006
Photograph from the collection of Ralph and Maria Della Grotta

[1] ‘Lettesi’ is the way people of Lettopalena are described – like Australians say ‘Sydneysiders’ or ‘Melbournians’. 
[2] Judith Galvin completed her PhD thesis in 1983 on ‘The Lettesi in Newcastle: A study of
ethnic community formation, consolidation and integration. ' It is online at A short version is also on this site, and is titled ‘The Lettesi Story - A Community in Search of Place.'
[3] Two similar Lettesi communities are located in Turtle Creek, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA and in Caseros, near Buenos Aires, Argentina.
[4]  Judith Galvin, 1983 ‘The Lettesi Story - A Community in Search of Place.' Online at p.19.
[5] Arcangelo Rossetti was Tony D’Accione’s uncle and also Maria Della Grotta’s grandfather.

[6]  Matteo Cosenza 1996, Lettopalena A Town, a History, translated by Guy Rossetti. Carsa Edition, Pescara, p.66.
[7] Matteo Cosenza 1996, p.26.
[8] Matteo Cosenza 1996, p.26.
[10]  Matteo Cosenza 1996, p. 52.
[11]  Matteo Cosenza 1996 p. 55
[12]  Matteo Cosenza 1996.
[13] Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 25.
[14] Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 25.

[15]  Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 7.
[16]  Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 32.
[17]  Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 27.
[18] Judith Galvin, 1983 p. 40.