There’s a whole literary scene at Marios on Brunswick St, Fitzroy that no one talks about.
I’m writing this at the front of the restaurant. There’s the double bass thump of blues music all around. One wall is plastered like a teenager’s bedroom with posters for local gigs. The other walls are bare and white, except for an exhibition of art with prices on paper tags under their frames. The exhibition changes every few weeks.
Marios was founded by two men named Mario, Maccarone and De Pasquale. Today, Mario Maccarone is in.
“It was really set up for artists and musicians,” Maccarone says.
“And then from that, in a way, all of a sudden writers and actors and agents and promoters and directors and all the periphery of the arts scene then sort of followed suit. That’s how it all started.
“And it’s been the same for 31 years. It’s in the walls, it’s in the ether here.”
Everyone I speak to has fond memories of the Old Fitzroy, a suburb of former shopfronts that became share houses stuffed with academics. Before Brunswick St turned back into a high end shopping strip, it was a slum for smart people.
“It was a very vibrant kind of community and there wasn’t a lot of choice for those people in the way of food. So we thought we could offer them a kind of place that they would like to sit in that had nice music and a nice atmosphere.”
“We’ve often employed writers and musicians.”
The Marios also try to employ refugees, students and people in need.
For an Italian, the day at Mario’s is a long nostalgia trip. Breakfast is the smell of coffee that spices your average Mediterranean dining room before work. In the late morning, the savoury scents begin. While it’s still quiet, there’s a sizzle from the kitchen and the smell of garlic, tomatoes, oil. A good Italian meal gets the most flavour out of the least ingredients.
This is around the time that the introverts appear. There’s someone on their laptop, a few people reading books alone. At one point every one of the two-chair tables hold a single person reading or writing, so that couples go to a table for four or the stools at the front window.
There’s a loud conversation in Italian near the counter. However, according to Maccarone this place isn’t well known in the Italian community.
”When we opened in 1986, we made a very conscious decision not to open in Lygon St in Carlton. We really didn’t want to be seen as part of that scene.
“We felt a little disillusioned by the top end restaurants that we were working in … We felt that if we got rid of the airs and graces and got rid of the lobsters and oysters and whatever was expensive, that we could put up vegetarian food or, you know, chicken, meat dishes as well, in an inexpensive way.”
They also started in Fitzroy out of admiration for its ‘80s arts scene, including the Fringe Festival offices, the many radio stations and a very visible LGBT community.
Local Dadaist poet Santo Cazzati used Marios as his lounge room when he lived in Fitzroy until 2010. Santo Cazzati is his stage name, certainly not his real name. Say that name in Italy, you will either be fined for blasphemy or the police will assume you’re a relative of composer Maurizio Cazzati (his real name).
When Marios celebrated its 30th birthday in 2016, Cazzati says there was a line around the corner and past Coles Johnston St. That night Mario’s served their 1986 menu at 1986 prices. Cazzati had a $6 steak and saw someone eat three.
Maccarone got the idea from a cafe in Amsterdam that he used to frequent.
“Every year on New Year’s Day, all the regular customers would get to eat for free.
“The owners would stand behind a trestle and fill your plate with food that they’d cooked, and give it to the customer. Often they were artists, musicians, painters, writers.
“I really did underestimate how well received it would be.”
Maccarone told me the usual crowd of artists and writers were more present the days before and after the 30th celebration.
That moment, award winning crime author Chris Womersley walked past. Maccarone pointed him out and mentioned his 2010 novel Bereft, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.
Yet the most literary thing about Marios might be the toilets. Hear me out.
On one wall of the men’s room is a curseword-happy conversation about consent, the Virgin Mary and just who is Jesus’ father. Each debater has used a different pen.
Above the toilet is an old poem:
My candle it burns at both ends
It shall not last the night
But ah my friends, and oh my foes
It burns a lovely light.
The author has been written then crossed out at least three times – the poem is often attributed to Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, maybe Gandhi for all we know. Really the poem is First Fig by Edna St Vincent Millay, published in 1920.
“We always let the graffiti happen,” Maccarone says. “Not discouraged, let’s say. But sometimes you’d get some guy with a big black texta, so we’d paint over it and leave one wall open to being graffitied.
“It speak volumes … about the people who come here. And they’re doing philosophy, you know, or whatever they’re doing. There’s a lot of thought and thought provoking conversation that goes on here.”
At least half the graffiti has someone disagreeing with it underneath. These walls are a hub of ideas.
In 2016 the Melbourne Museum’s History and Technology Collection held a few memories of Marios, such as cutlery, crockery, flyers and photos.
“We just maintained the beast … a lot of people feel very possessive of the place.
“We’ve had break-ups where people [decide] who gets Mario’s. One of them gets to come and one doesn’t.
“We’ve had generational staff where, you know, people who have worked here whose children have come and worked here. And people who have kids and then their kids have come here.
“The world has evolved a lot in the last 15, 20 years.”
You can find Marios Cafe at 303 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Website: marioscafe.com.au
Sources: http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/2933, https://museumvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/whats-on/history-and-technology-collection-tour/
Feature Image Credit: Marios