People in this area like to grow things. If you walk the residential streets of Avondale Heights, a sleepy suburb in Melbourne's north-west, you can see the evidence everywhere – trees heavy with the weight of oranges or black figs, silver-leaved olive trees dotted on nature strips, plots of tomatoes and tangles of herbs. These are gardens grown as reminders of places left behind and recalled in the scent of crushed sweet basil: Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo.
It was in Avondale Heights that the Mellini family first settled when they came to Australia, travelling from Rome to Melbourne in 2000 so that Achille Mellini could take up a job as a pastry chef at Brunetti on Faraday Street. It is in Avondale Heights that, nearly two decades later, his son, Carlo, has opened a neighbourhood cannolificio, a cannoli bar, dedicated almost entirely to the classic Sicilian pastry.
Carlo was originally headed for a career in architecture, but a stint working front-of-house at Brunetti gave him a taste for the family trade. When it came to opening Cannoli Bar, he and his business partner, Anthony Calenda, wanted to do something that reflected both their Sicilian heritage and their Australian upbringing. When they found an old milk bar for sale on one of Avondale Heights' residential streets, everything clicked into place.
"I've always liked the idea of backstreet cafés in Melbourne's inner suburbs," says Carlo. "It's part of Melbourne's culture, that love of hidden places. At one point we thought maybe we should just be a normal café, but it came to the day when we wanted to register the business and we just said, stuff it – let's do cannoli."
Cannoli Bar is a homey sort of place, fitted out to recall a mid-century Italo-Australian espresso bar. Up front is a neat counter where Carlo makes coffee and granita; next to that is a large display case stacked with crisp, golden cannoli shells, fresh from the deep-fryer and left unfilled. Out the back, Achille and his wife, Vincenza, who is also an accomplished pastry chef, oversee the kitchen.
"Lots of shops make cannoli, but this one is very different," says Achille. He apologises for his English, which he describes as "not very perfect" – he learned the language in his 30s after arriving in Australia, by coaching children's soccer teams. Because of this, his conversation has a certain poetic flair. "For a long time in Australia, the cannoli is sleeping," he explains. "A lot of people think that Australians don't like the ricotta, so they just make vanilla or chocolate. Nothing with decoration; very simple, very plain."
At Cannoli Bar, they are proving this assumption wrong. The Classico – made with an ethereally crunchy outer shell tasting faintly of sultana, which gives way to a shock of cold, cloud-like ricotta cream – is easily their most popular flavour.
What separates a Mellini cannolo from its generic counterpart comes down to two things: ingredients and timing. It's not until someone places an order that it is piped with filling, and it's this made-to-order approach that delivers the ideal cannolo: the ricotta as velvety smooth as the shell is crisp. For those who've only ever tried the slightly soggy cream-filled concoctions found in supermarkets, this kind of cannolo is a revelation.
Achille, a third-generation pastry chef, knows his way around a pasticceria. When he was growing up, his family identified strongly as Sicilian. His father spoke only the Sicilian dialect rather than Italian, even after they relocated to Rome to work in the family business, Pasticceria Mellini. On coming to Australia, Achille did stints at Brunetti and Grossi Florentino as head pastry chef. Later, he ran an Italian bakery in Flemington called Dolce e Pane. Cannoli Bar signifies a return to his roots, to the Sicilian recipes passed down through his family. A respect for the region's produce and traditions is deeply ingrained in him. Getting it right matters.
"I don't change anything. If I don't have the correct ingredients, I don't make it," he says. He imports stone-ground Maiorca flour and sweet Marsala wine from Sicily; his granita, served in store the traditional way with sweet brioche, is made from almonds or pistachio nuts shipped from the Sicilian town of Bronte. If he wants to use orange or lemon zest, he'll walk the nearby streets of Avondale Heights to buy fruit grown by the locals, "Because it's organic and doesn't have the poison!" he says. He's even managed to source sheep's milk ricotta – a rarity in Australia – from a local Victorian farm.
"In Sicily, that's the ricotta that they use," explains Carlo. "It has to be sheep ricotta, and it should be decorated with pistachio on one side and a piece of orange peel on the other side. For me, that's the perfect cannoli."
As well as cannoli, Achille bakes a rotating selection of pastries more esoterically Sicilian: flaky shells of citrus-spiked sfogliatelle; sfinci, rustic doughnut-like balls; custardy doughnut spirals known as cartocci; and ravioli dolci, rich crescents of leavened pastry filled with sweet ricotta and deep-fried.
But not everything at Cannoli Bar aims for strict authenticity. Carlo believes in inclusiveness, that there should be a cannolo to please everyone. "We are very traditional, but we also want to play with flavours," he says. "We didn't want Cannoli Bar to be a place where you had to be Italian to like it."
Lemon meringue. Blueberry cheesecake. Baci. Lamington. While there's no shortage of Sicilian classics to perfect, these kinds of crowd-pleasing flavour combinations let Achille exercise his flair for inventiveness. "I am starting to put my experience and my creativity on top of the cannoli," he says. "I make 15, 20 different kinds – my idea is to have a shelf of cannoli like the French have the éclair."
The local food culture has changed a lot in the past two decades. When the Mellinis first arrived in Australia, real Italian food was a rarity. "In the year 2000, there was no San Daniele prosciutto in Australia," says Carlo. "You didn't have your DOCs, your 400 Gradis. If you wanted Italian food, you had to go to places like La Porchetta."
Today, he says, Australians not only appreciate Italian flavours, they understand that there's a difference between Roman cuisine and what you'd eat in Tuscany. To specialise in Sicilian pastries is no longer an obscure niche – it's a calling card. "Now it's the era of the regional. As a migrant, you bring your culture with you and you want to show it to the world. My grandfather was from Catania, my dad was born in Catania. We want to bring back that Sicilian feeling."
The biggest buzz he gets is when a nonno or nonna comes in to lean on the bar and eat a Sicilian brioche with almond granita or take home a case of freshly filled ricotta cannoli.
"They're the pioneers of Italian culture in this country," says Carlo. "When we get the stamp of approval from the older generation, it always makes us proud."
Cannoli Bar, 23 Riviera Rd, Avondale Heights, Vic, (03) 9337 7049