Leichhardt in Sydney’s inner west is one of three Sydney suburbs referred to as “Little Italy”. Today I’ll find out more and explore how it differs from Haberfield (next door to Leichhardt) and Five Dock (on the western border of Haberfield).
Getting to Leichhardt
Sydney sparkles this autumn morning. Waiting for the Light Rail at Central Station, images of Japanese train travel pass through my head (not that I have been to Japan). People crowd around the doors and push their way into the jam-packed carriages. My train is less busy and I watch the Inner West pass by from my window seat.
The footpath outside Leichhardt North Light Rail Station is not just a plain concrete path. Words etched into the concrete reflect the freight that was once carried to and forth along the tracks here.
Almost immediately, my plan changes and I take an almost hidden path behind the tall wall which shelters homes from the City-West Link.
Suburban Scenes in Leichhardt
A young girl vacuums her little P-plated car. We exchange smiles. The little cottages in James Street vary. Some are renovated and freshly painted while others desperately need some TLC. Some are modernised and others remain true to their original design.
There’s a man sitting on a bench in the sun outside his home. I cross the road to greet him. “It’s nice out here” he says, giving me a smile while shading his eyes with a magazine.
Here the houses have names. “Berowra” seems out of place -the suburb of that name is far away and the Aboriginal meaning (either “place of many winds” or “place of many shells” doesn’t apply here). Two semi-detached homes “Louisa” and “Maisie” stand side by side. Perhaps these were the original house names. “YWorry” is a bit different. The round leadlight window above the door depicts a red old-style car.
The Old Cyclops Toy Factory
The old Cyclops Toy factory is just around the corner. Now an apartment block, the original signs (repainted) proudly tell of the building’s history. Opposite, The Grumpy Bean Café looks appealing, but as it is still early, I keep going.
Casa Mola Ristorante & Pizzeria is the first indication of Leichhardt being Italian. I have vague memories of eating here many years ago.
Pioneers Memorial Park
The path entering Pioneer’s Memorial Park is lined with roses. A plaque reminds visitors that the Pioneer’s Memorial Park, was formerly the Balmain Cemetery. In another garden bed, a broken headstone carved with the name William Burton who died in 1876 lies forgotten.
Dogs run free in the leash free area, mums push their toddlers on swings and others read or just take in the sun on the grass. An older man looks around under the bushes, collecting small branches, possibly for firewood. Perhaps this activity reminds him of foraging when he was younger and lived in Italy.
Workers are cleaning up the almost high-tech bandstand, a metal structure complete with solar panels and bright yellow detailing.
The streets around here are wide and lined with cars. Many of the homes don’t have off street parking – unless their blocks stretch back to garages which line narrower lanes. So far, I have noticed two motor scooters parked in small front yards. Another hint of Little Italy in Sydney.
Sydney Bus Museum
The Leichhardt Bus Depot warns against unauthorised entry with numerous signs and razor wire. The Sydney Bus Museum is located here but unfortunately is only open a couple of Sundays each month. Before researching Leichhardt, I never knew this museum existed and will have to return with my little grandson whose early words include “Bus”.
Workers are fixing a gate at the back of The Greek Orthodox Church. The priest wearing his long simple black cassock watches the work, nodding to me as I pass.
Outdoor Public Art in Leichhardt
Occasionally the loud drone of an aeroplane overhead disturbs the peace. One of the drawbacks of living in the Inner West, I am sure you get used to it. In little pockets, I discover small businesses and light industry side by side with housing. I pass a lead light supply place and a man fixing a large truck.
The Local Tart in Moore Street seems as good a place as any to stop for my late breakfast. My Bircher muesli and coffee are worth the wait. Other customers speak Italian, sprinkled here and there with a few English words.
Publisher Textiles is a surprise find. The external wall murals draw me in, but it’s their story that interests me. They produce original patterns and print using traditional screening methods to create textiles, wall papers and clothing. They also print designs by indigenous artists and have a clothing line using these designs. Discovering places like this is what makes my suburban discoveries so worthwhile.
War Memorial Park seems like any other park with children playing and adults relaxing on benches. I walk past and turn into one of the back lanes lined with garages before turning into another suburban street, passing mostly single storey freestanding and semidetached houses with the occasional Victorian Terrace thrown in.
At the 36th Battalion Park a grandfather (probably in his 70s) keeps tabs on an energetic two-year-old. We share grandparenting stories – like me, he has to travel far to fulfil his grandparenting duty. But wouldn’t give it up for the world.
Norton Street Leichhardt
So far, I have found references to “Little Italy” here and there but expect to find more when I walk down Norton Street. A couple of busses pass me – on their way to Maroubra and Bondi Junction. Our public transport really does do a good job getting people around.
A man leaves the N.&T. Lucchitti Deli and Liquor store with a bottle in hand. A walk through the shop makes me realise that the main income here is from the large selection of Italian wines and spirits. Of course, there are Australian wines too. Paintings by Mrs Lucchitti depict scenes from all over the world. Her son and I chat and he bids me farewell with a “Thanks Señora”.
There are many Italian restaurants and pizzerias in Leichhardt, as well as more than the usual number of cake shops. However, there are also three Japanese and three Greek restaurants as well as an Indian and a Thai. As families move and communities change and the fabric of a suburb changes. This is happening in Leichhardt.
Boomalli Aboriginal Art Collective
In Flood Street, Boomalli Aboriginal Artist Co-operative has a closed sign on the slightly ajar door. As I peer inside, a woman walks to the door, greets me and offers me a look around. How lucky am I? The current exhibition has a range of styles from recognisable more traditional Aboriginal artwork to more modern pieces.
A framed letter from the previous Governor of NSW, Marie Bashir, congratulates a Boomalli Artist on winning a prize. She has one of his works in her collection. Upholstered in a black and white Aboriginal design, a large seat, the shape of Australia with a smaller stool representing Tasmania has a number of artworks strewn across the surface.
Making my way back to Norton Street, I can’t supress a chuckle when I see a Sydney Harbour bridge adorning the top of a garage door in Cary St. I must tell Vanessa Berry of Mirror Sydney about this one – she wrote a post about the various Harbour Bridges she has discovered.
The Italian Forum
Walking into the Italian Forum, I look into The Merchant of Venice which sells beautiful handmade masks. This shop has had to diversify – besides the masks, there is a range of accessories and clothing items. Instead of handing my business card to the woman in the shop, I almost give her my opal card, laughing “You don’t want my Opal Card do you?”. She jokes “Has it got any money on it?”.
The Italian Forum is designed like a piazza with restaurants line the square and the balconies of the units above looking onto the scene below. The last time I visited was a few years ago now. Then, like now, some of the shops were vacant, seeking new tenants.
The six-hour clock in The Italian Forum deserves a mention. The idea comes from a clock designed in the 1850s for a clock tower in Brisighella in Northern Italy. With only six hours, the viewer is expected to know whether it is morning or afternoon. According to the sign, only one hand was necessary as no meeting or task was “critical to the minute”.
Renwick lane, where I expect street art, is a disappointment. The expected artwork has been painted over. Never mind. There is plenty around on other walls.
Pizza and Gelato in Leichhardt
It is past lunch time, and being in Sydney’s Little Italy, I really should eat pizza. Fortunately, the kitchen at Moretti is not yet closed for the afternoon. Plenty of people still linger over their lunch. Italian phrases reach my window seat table. Unfortunately, my veggie pizza is soggy and I should have accepted the offer of chilli oil to provide additional flavour.
Disappointed by my pizza, I am hoping that a Gelato from Bar Italia will live up to expectations. It does. The generous serving of passionfruit gelato is a fitting end to my Leichhardt discovery.
There is yet another mural at the Leichhardt North Light Rail Station. The interesting street art and murals that I discovered in Leichhardt today were totally unexpected. Street Art seems to be more and more accepted and mainstream these days.
Italian community organisations have their home in Leicchardt. I find Co.As.It, an Italian not for profit organisation, established in 1968 it aims to promote the Italian language and culture in NSW and also helps migrants from Italy. There is also the Associazione Napoletana.
So, is Leichhardt the Little Italy in Sydney?
All three Sydney suburbs known as “Little Italy” deserve the title. Leichhardt really is the big brother with the lions share of Italian restaurants and Italian community associations. Haberfield has a smaller Italian commercial presence with great specialty grocers and delicatessens. Five Dock is different again. Home to many Italians, the village has a distinct Italian flavour, and the family deli there is well worth the visit.