Farewell to an incredible slice of history

The Condognotto family held a farewell and thank you luncheon of its historic venue, The Society Restaurant on Saturday, May 13.

The Bourke St restaurant has been a part of CBD history for almost a century, with migrant brothers Giuseppe and Antonio Codognotto first opening it as an Italian Club at 54 Little Bourke St in 1923.

Giuseppe returned to Italy before bringing wife Amalia, four-year-old son Rino and two year old daughter Rina to Australia in 1927.

In 1932, Mr Codognotto moved the restaurant to its current location of 23 Bourke St and renamed it The Italian Society.

CBD News spoke with now 92-year-old Rina Wilcox-Codognotto about her memories of growing up in a restaurant that survived thieves, charges of breaking the law and war.

Ms Wilcox-Codognotto was involved in the family business from a very young age.

She accompanied her father to the Port Melbourne wharfs to collect imported food and cooking utensils from Italy. The restaurant’s first Ravioli rolling pin was imported in 1935.

During her days as a schoolgirl, Ms Wilcox-Codognotto would walk from Catholic Ladies College in East Melbourne to the restaurant for lunch. If she arrived before the lunch rush, she would eat in the kitchen with the staff. However if the restaurant was busy, her father would sit her with patrons who were often celebrities, politicians or business people, so that she could learn manners and how to engage with customers.

“I didn’t know they were important people, to me they were just people. It was just part of my every day,” she said.

Ms Wilcox-Codognotto fondly remembered a time when she begged her father to let her eat lunch at school, but was shocked by the meat pie and sauce put in front of her.

“I was expecting a proper menu like what I had at the restaurant!” she said.

In 1938, Giuseppe Codognotto died of a stroke. Ms Wilcox-Codognotto was just 12.

Her aunty, who ran a tailoring business on the first floor of the three-storey restaurant, insisted that she and her brother become more involved with the family business. Rino Codognotto left school at the age of 15 to work in the restaurant full-time. Ms Wilcox-Codognotto helped out when she could.

Tragedy struck the restaurant again in 1939 with the start of the Second World War.

When Italy joined the war in 1940, government officials splashed red paint across the word “Italian” on the restaurants signage, as Italy was deemed the enemy. From then on, the restaurant was simply named “The Society”.

Days later, military police descended on the restaurant and arrested many of the staff.

In 1941, Rino was conscripted to the army. Ms Wilcox-Codognotto was left to run the restaurant at just 17-years-old.

Ms Wilcox-Codognotto took over control of the stock room after her regular stock worker became sick. During these two weeks she noticed that 10 pounds of coffee had gone missing. She then confronted and fired the worker who admitted to stealing produce.

“After that, all the other workers were on edge. They realised I wasn’t so soft and simple,” she said.

Business picked up with the arrival of the American soldiers. Ms Wilcox-Codognotto altered the menu to cater to their tastes. It was then that spaghetti and meatballs was introduced to the menu.

Continuing her father’s custom, Ms Wilcox-Codognotto would give customers a small glass of red or white wine with each meal.

Ms Wilcox-Codognotto was charged for selling alcohol without a licence after regular customers revealed themselves as detectives.

“I had to go to court and explain that I wasn’t charging for the wine, I was giving it away. So instead they charged me with advertising alcohol. It was stupid really.”

Rino returned from war five years later and managed the restaurant until his retirement.

He sold the business some 10 years ago and the restaurant had a number of owners over the years, however the building stayed in the Codognotto name until January this year when it sold for $8.07 million.

Saying goodbye surprisingly did not sadden Ms Wilcox-Codognotto. Instead, she enjoyed the celebration.

“The business hasn’t been in the family for years now, but being with old friends was nice,” she said.

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