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Borsari's Corner at night.
Photograph: Andrew

14 cool facts about Carlton we bet you didn't know

We all know Carlton as Melbourne's hub for Italian food, but its streets are full of rich stories and folklore

Written by
Rose Johnstone

Carlton is one of Melbourne's most popular suburbs, and for good reason: its streets are lined with Italian restaurants and cafés all wafting out the enticing scents of fresh pizza, salty prosciutto, carby entreés and rich espressos. But did you know that its history is filled with gritty stories of illegal gambling dens and the places where some of our most prominent comedans (think Magda Szubanski of Kath & Kim) got their start?

Here are 14 cool facts and stories about Carlton that you can regale your friends with.

#1 Borsari’s Corner, the big neon sign on the corner of Lygon and Grattan streets, is named after Olympic cycling champion Nino Borsari, who was competing in Australia when World War Two broke out. As Italy was fighting against the Allies, Borsari was unable to return home, and so opened Borsari Cycles on that corner in 1941.

#2 A number of Lygon Street restaurants, including the infamous L’Alba café, hosted high-stakes illegal card games upstairs. They were frequented by ‘colourful characters’ including Alphonse Gangitano, the ‘Black Prince of Lygon Street’, later played by Vince Colosimo in the 2008 TV series Underbelly.

#3 The Lygon Street Festa, which started in 1978, was the first multicultural festival of its kind in Australia.

#4 Look up: atop the large Neo-Gothic building next to Lygon Court on Drummond Street are four gargoyles, designed as hybrids of a kangaroo and gryphon with a tail and three toes.

#5 Carlton has a fine comedy pedigree: La Mama theatre nurtured the likes of Jane Turner, Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski (Kath & Kim), and comedy duo the Scared Weird Little Guys opened the Comedy Club (now the site of Cinema Nova) in 1990.

#6 Carlton became a beacon of bohemia in the ’70s. Comedians, actors and bands like the Skyhooks led an art-rock scene that centred around alternative arts venue the Pram Factory (where the current Lygon Court now stands). Playwright Barry Dickins recalls renting half a terrace house on Canning Street for $6 a week in 1970.

#7 The first influx of immigrants to Carlton hoped to strike it lucky on the goldfields in the 1850s. The area south of Drummond Street quickly became a shantytown, where disease was rife due to lack of sanitation.

#8 In the mid-1860s, Carlton North Primary School was the Carlton Receiving-House for the Insane.

#9 Melbourne’s first Italian eateries were located in the boarding houses of Carlton in the ’50s, where Italian migrants started cooking home-style meals for their friends, then for the growing Italian community.

#10 Before it became known as ‘Little Italy’ after World War II, Lygon Street was the centre of Jewish life in Melbourne.

#11 When the first Italian food shops started importing olive oil, Australians were shocked – they’d only ever used it for medicinal purposes.

#12 Australia’s first espresso machines were installed in Lygon Street. One pioneer was Agostini Monici, who launched a coffee company with his two friends – Sergio Coperchini, Vic Panettieri – and fused their names to create the name Mocopan.

#13 Salvatore della Bruna opened Melbourne’s first pizzeria, Toto’s, in 1961, and claims to have invented the ‘Aussie’ pizza (with pineapple!). It has sadly shut its doors and the space is now occupied by The Quarry Hotel

#14 Lygon Food Store (now Lagoon Dining), another of Carlton’s old guards, became famous for its giant provolone, which took several men to wheel it into the store once the front window had been removed.

Check out our Carlton guide for everything else this classic Melbourne suburb has to offer.

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