Will a new generation embrace our cities old Italian Clubs?

Photo credit: Samara Clifford

It’s the fireplace where the magic happens. The magic of warmth and the magic of connection. You can sail across oceans, leave everything you know behind, but the hearth – the fogolar – brings you home.

In an anonymous corner of Thornbury, Melbourne, away from the cafes, record stores and craft beer bars of High Street, wedged between a semi-industrial block and a high school stands the Fogolar Furlan Club (Furlan Club for short), an Italian Club with one hell of a story. Last year the club celebrated its 60th anniversary. A lot of unforgettable moments gone down here, but today something particularly memorable is taking place: the club is hosting the world’s worst game of bocche.

Dubbed “A sports carnival for the unsporty,” the promise of bocce, beer and pizza has enticed dozens of young, inner-city dwellers to jump on their bikes or into an Uber and head to what people are now calling the best kept secret in town, the Furlan Club boccedrome. Bocce is similar to bowls, but there’s no bias on the balls, which is just as well because unlike bowls you can throw these hefty balls in the air, and today’s newbies are launching their balls in all directions, only occasionally in the vicinity of the jack. The dress code is casual, but in hindsight it might have been wise to recommend steel-capped boots.

As well as the bocce courts there’s also a soccer field, an enormous ballroom and a well-stoked bar across which beer and pizza is served to the unsporty patrons. There are retro foosball tables adorned with ashtrays, photos of happy events going back decades: soccer teams, netball teams, dinner and dance nights, New Year’s Eve celebrations, Miss Friuli pageants, even the bocce world championships. While some of the photos and the memories are hazy, the mood in the room is unmistakable: it’s revival.

Today’s new bocce players may be struggling with their technique, but help is close by. Wise, old hands demonstrate the art and give helpful pointers to hopeless, often in the form of wild gestures. The bocce masters hold their heads in their hands and cringe in mock horror, but mostly they laugh and the years peel off their faces. After the game young and old gather in the bar beside the fogolar and the stories begin, just like they always have.

When we think of Melbourne today we imagine a vibrant and diverse street scene – great coffee and the smell of exotic food, rain pelting on awnings as hordes gather in narrow laneways eating and socialising. But we don’t always think back to the struggle that brought it here, and why we owe such a debt to the warmth that radiated from clubs like this, then spread through the city.

Post Second World War saw mass immigration to Australia from Europe, bringing many thousands to start a new life in a strange land. But the land of opportunity was also a land of isolation. New-comers weren’t accepted easily, let alone embraced. Furlan Club president Peter Muzzolini remembers the struggles his own father (himself a former club president) had when he landed in Australia. “A lot of people went through an almost repressed period where they had to hold their heritage in.”

Italian clubs, along with hundreds of other ethnic clubs, were largely formed out of loneliness, and the need to maintain connection. Men came in search of a future, families came as refugees, but remained connected to their homeland. Furlan Club member Fred Martin’s brother Gilbert was one of the founders of the club. “Initially the people were meeting in houses, anywhere they could find. One thing they did was organise recorded messages to be sent home to loved ones in Italy at Christmas and Easter. A lot of single men had left their entire families behind.”

The messages were recorded on a reel-to-reel tape, and when the tape reached Italy it would be listened to then turned over, and messages back to Australia would be recorded. A hall in Melbourne would be hired and everyone would gather there to hear the messages played. Tears would invariably flow.

The Friuli Venezia Giulia region in northern Italy stretches from the high alps down to the coast at the north-east corner of the Adriatic Sea. Winters are long and cold. A home’s fogolar provided more than heat, it provided a place of connection and conversation. Like the food that was cooked in the embers, it nourished the body and soul. People were together, the flames roared and the problems of the world melted away. Italian clubs in Australia helped replicate this comfort.

“There was so much homesickness,” says Martin. “The first few years were so hard. There was a lot of animosity towards Italians after the war because they were on the wrong side.” The Furlan Club, along with many clubs like it, served the same purpose: a central fogolar for the people.

The club purchased its first clubhouse in 1957, in nearby Mansfield Street. By 1985 it had outgrown the premises and built a larger headquarters at 1 Matisi Street, where it remains today. The clubhouse was built entirely by members, donating their time and building expertise. Dinner and dance nights were attended by hundreds and sports teams flourished. It was also a place to network, to meet potential employers or find a workforce. But beneath the surface a sad reality was slowly emerging, as it was for so many clubs like it. The founding generation was aging and the younger generation had a different attitude. They saw themselves more as Aussies, not Italians, and many shunned the homeland traditions the clubs were trying to so hard to keep alive. But the clubs have a trump card up their sleeve, other than sports days for the unsporty. Food.

Today the Furlan Club has a special visitor: masterchef Guy Grossi. He steps forward and is immediately taken back. Grossi grew up going to various Italian clubs around Melbourne every week. With a father from northern Italy and a mother from the south he was exposed to the regional variations of cooking. He says it helped shape him into the chef he is today. “A club like this is great because it shows the focus of the region. Friuli is a wonderful region, and a dish from Friuli is different to a dish from the Veneto. As a chef you become exposed to all sorts of influences. Everything creeps in. You draw from your cultural background, your heritage, to create dishes.”

Grossi says he cooks from two territories: Victoria, where he lives, and Italy, the territory his parents left behind. It’s about combining the fresh, seasonal food grown near him with the recipes and traditions of his cultural heritage. “You want people to put food in their mouths, roll their eyes back and say ‘that’s amazing!’”

Grossi points out it’s not the bricks and mortar that make the clubs, it’s what happens inside those walls. It could happen anywhere, and when Grossi was growing up it did. “You’d be in a backyard with so many people and there wouldn’t be enough furniture so some people would sit on fruit boxes from the local greengrocer. The old boys would play cards and there would be arguments over who cheated and it was an amazing atmosphere. Us kids were excited to be there because there were other kids there and it was always a special occasion.”

Grossi remembers the days when every back yard was an orchard and a market garden. Food was the centre of family life. “The kitchen was the focal point of the household. If you wanted to see mum you’d go into the kitchen and there she’d be. Dad would run the garden out the back. He grew his own tomatos, zucchinis, broad beans. You were eating things were seasonal. Keeping those traditional dishes alive was crucial to keeping the culture alive. It still is.” Grossi doesn’t want the influence that Italian clubs have had on Melbourne culture to be forgotten, or even worse, the clubs to be lost. “These clubs are a community device – a device for keeping community together and telling stories, like the stories on the wall here. We can’t lose them.”

Fellow Melbourne chef Joe Vargetto – owner of Mister Bianco, Massi and Fondata – has a similar story to tell. His Sicilian father came to Australia in 1956. He attended Italian clubs with his parents all through the 70s and 80s. “They were a place for people to network, to have a piece of Italy here.” He agrees that loneliness permeated a lot of the time. “I saw my father cry a lot. That stopped when he was at the clubs. His life was these clubs.”

Vargetto sees the world through food, and has a different insight into what may contribute to the resurgence of Italian clubs. “Back then these clubs weren’t as much about food as they were about socialising and sharing stories. Food was something that happened at home. But today new

immigrants are bringing more authentic Italian food to the clubs. The food is now more authentic than the people. It’s a strange reversal.” Strange but necessary, perhaps. When a part of your culture gets lost something needs to bring it back. “Many children (of founding members) shunned the culture and the recipes got lost. But my generation is trying to bring that back.”

Back at the Furlan Club the crew are gearing up for one of the biggest days of the year. On April 5 they celebrate Friuli Day. There’ll be grape stomping, games of bocce, traditional dishes and a chance to reminisce about how a group of ordinary people started something special. The faded photos will come alive, the people now gone will be remembered and the rooms will buzz with life. In a small room near the bocce courts is a glass cabinet full of love. Wine carafes, old letters, flags, gifts from Friulian clubs all over the world. Symbols of connection, each with a personal message. This is the power of objects to tell stories. Part social club, part museum.

Guy Grossi knows that it will take action, though, not just words, if these clubs are to thrive. “The way to get new people involved is through fun. Through showing them it’s not a chore to crush tomatoes and clean them and bottle them. Show them that it’s actually a fun thing to do because you’re bringing people together, you’re having food and drinks and having a carnival.”

A carnival for the unsporty; for the unculinary. A club for the young and old and for every culture that has come to Melbourne, carved out a home and spread colour and warmth through the city. A place for visitors to come and gather round the fogolar, soak up history, perhaps a little grappa, and keep the flame burning.