Showing posts with label Silvia Saccaro. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Silvia Saccaro. Show all posts

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Little Lace Maker of Arsiè

She was working full time at the age of 11, travelled alone by ship from Genoa (Italy) to Sydney to marry a man she had not seen for five years, and cooked meals for 60 diners a night in a cafe in Beaumont Street, Hamilton. And by the way, Silvia Saccaro raised three children.

She arrived for our meeting direct from her hairdresser, immaculate.

As I listened to the story of Silvia Saccaro, I marvelled at her pragmatism.

Silvia never looks back, and never regrets. She follows her mother’s advice:

When you go to live in another country, you have to settle and follow their way, or you will never be happy.

“We are living here,” declares Silvia in her forthright way, “and if you don’t like it, go back!”[1]

She has been back, eight times, to visit.

“Italy is always in my thoughts,” she says. “But there is no point in saying, Oh Italy this, and Italy that!”

Silvia was born Silvia Bettin, between the wars (1933), in Arsiè, 80 kilometres north-west of Venice. The family owned a small farm, and a house in the village.

View towards Arsiè from the family property (2007)
Photograph by Cinzia Saccoro

Times were hard, and the family needed every member to contribute to its income.

Silvia left school at the age of 11, and was sent to a nearby convent to learn Burano lace making. A nun there specialised in this ancient craft, and conducted a Lace School.

The craft originated on the Isola di Burano, an island in the Northern Venetian Lagoon. Burano lace is made with extremely thin cotton, and so it takes many days to create a pattern.

In the 1950s, many houses and institutions did not have adequate heating or lighting. Young women began work at 8 am in the brightest part of the building, moving in the afternoon to the squares. This minimised the strain on their eyes, as they were doing incredibly fine work.[2]

Burano lace was highly prized. Silvia remembers the nuns telling her it was more expensive than gold.

Silvia Saccaro’s craft display at the Italian Centre for the
1993 Hamilton Fiesta
Burano lace is in the frames. Jumpers have been knitted without following a pattern
Photograph courtesy of the Saccaro family

Silvia went on to learn dressmaking, and worked for six years as a dressmaker in the village. When the family needed more income than this provided, Silvia travelled over the border to Switzerland to take up a job in a carpet factory.

After working for some 16 years, Silvia received an offer of marriage from Australia.

She had known Rigo Saccaro since their kindergarten days, and they had “gone out together” in their teens. They were parted when Rigo emigrated to Australia with his parents, and found restaurant work in Sydney.

Silvia accepted Rigo’s proposal. What does a bride-to-be pack, going off to a country she's never seen? Silvia travelled well prepared. She took three trunks and three suitcases, along with a box containing a 72 piece dinner set. Included in the trunks were things for the house such as coffee cups, a tea set and silver cutlery.

Silvia’s mission brown trunk was given an update by Rigo when it faded, with the green detailing added
Photograph by Cinzia Saccaro 

She also brought out materials and equipment for embroidery and dressmaking – even her Singer sewing machine!


Silvia’s Singer sewing machine, brought with her to Australia in 1961
Photograph by Cinzia Saccaro 

Today the sewing machine sits in Silvia’s laundry and is rarely used. Not only did it survive the long trip to Australia and create many garments over the years, but it also survived the 2007 Newcastle floods. The high water mark is clearly visible in the photograph.

The ship Australia left Genoa on 24 February, 1961 and arrived just over a month later. Silvia paid for her own passage, and travelled alone. Her family saw her off at Genoa, and she remembers the fun and parties on board. As the ship crossed the Equator, she was crowned a Princess of Neptune!

Leaving Genoa (Silvia is circled)
Photo taken by Silvia’s brother-in-law as she left Genoa, from the personal collection of Silvia Saccaro

“So what was it like, seeing this man you were to marry, after five years?” I asked.

“Oh, just the same, just the same!”

That pragmatism again!

No time was wasted. Rigo and Silvia were  wed within a week of her arrival in Australia. Rigo’s parents were living in Hamilton, Newcastle so the ceremony took place at St Lawrence O’Toole’s Catholic Church in Broadmeadow.

Silvia and Rigo Saccaro’s wedding, with Rigo’s family
and best man Silvano Bellinaso (1961)
Photograph from the personal collection of Silvia Saccaro

The next 8-9 years saw Silvia and Rigo working hard – Rigo in restaurants, Silvia as a dressmaker from their home in Surry Hills. Three babies arrived. They were able to save to buy a house in Earlwood.

After Rigo’s mother died in 1969, his father urged the young family to move to Hamilton, Newcastle to be closer to him. He had spotted a small coffee shop for sale at 50 Beaumont Street, and thought his son could run it “easily”.

When they bought the coffee shop, Rigo immediately turned to his wife for help.

“Why don’t you cook?”

She was co-opted to the job “from day one!” she says.

Newcastle was a culture shock after Sydney. Was leaving familiar places and friends a wrench, I wondered?

“It was horrible,” agrees Silvia.

Being Silvia, though, she just got on with meeting the challenges in front of her.

Gelateria Arena sold coffee, ice cream and sandwiches but quickly diversified into home cooked Italian meals.

A rare photograph of the Gelateria Arena, Hamilton (1971)
Daughters Delia and Cinzia after their First Holy Communion
Photograph from the personal collection of Silvia Saccaro

Then began 20 years of Silvia cooking for up to 60 diners each night. Space for just 15 chairs meant the first shift started at 5.30 pm. The café  was popular with workers from Newcastle’s big infrastructure projects. Men worked for companies such as Transfield, EPT and Multicon, or concreting companies like the De Martin Brothers, Cannavale, Di Prinzio and Cossettini Concreting.

It is easy to imagine these hungry and exhausted migrants, most of them single men, surging off the building sites and buses, keen for some home cooked food that reminded them of where they’d come from.

The later sittings were of Australian business people who enjoyed trying new cuisines and who ultimately became regular customers.

“They loved my spaghetti,” Silvia tells me. “And my schnitzel was really popular.”

The work ethic that Silvia had absorbed as an 11 year old trainee lace maker stayed with her. Her children were still young, but she did it all.

“The girls helped after school”, she says. “I was working in the café six days a week and looking after the house and children. Sunday was spent cleaning the shop because it was the only day it was closed. It was a hard life; lucky I was young or I couldn’t do it.”[3]

At the Hamilton Fiesta in 1990, daughters Cinzia and Delia served over 1200 gelati, while husband Rigo cooked gelato batches in the kitchen
Photograph courtesy of the Saccaro family

Following the 1989 earthquake, son Alan was kept busy serving coffees and milkshakes, and churning gelato
Photograph courtesy of the Saccaro family

A recent widow, but still living in the same Hamilton home she and Rigo purchased over four decades ago, Silvia is able to enjoy an easier life these days. Her community contribution has been  volunteering at the Italian Centre serving meals, and with the Italian Choir, of which she has been President for 20 years. While now losing its members to frailty, she has been kept busy until recently with practice every week and engagements to sing at funerals and nursing homes.

Silvia third from left, with the Azzurri Italian Choir at Tinonee Gardens,
The Multicultural Village (1997)
Photograph from the personal collection of Silvia Saccaro

“My roots are still there in Italy”, Silvia says, “...but my children are Australian and I am settled here.” [4]

Silvia’s mother’s advice has served her well. She is settled, and she is happy.

Coal Espresso is in the Beaumont Street space that was once
Gelateria Arena (2016)



Special thanks to Silvia Saccaro, and to Cinzia Saccaro for their story and photographs.


[1] Some information and quotations for this post have been sourced from NSW Migration Heritage Centre, Exhibition – Belongings. Post-WW2 memories and journeys. Refer
[3] NSW Migration Heritage Centre, Exhibition – Belongings. Post-WW2 memories and journeys. Refer
[4] NSW Migration Heritage Centre, Exhibition – Belongings. Post-WW2 memories and journeys. Refer