News / Food & Drink

Arrivederci to Lygon Street icon Gelobar

After 32 eventful years, the popular ice cream parlour has shut its doors

Photo: Facebook

Mark Phillips
Tuesday, June 7, 2022

WHEN she heard that Lygon Street institution Gelobar had suddenly closed down almost a fortnight ago, Nadia Ruscio felt like a piece of her heart had been torn out.

The legendary gelati shop was a major part of Ms Ruscio’s life during her formative years and like many former staff and customers, she feels bereft at its closure on May 29.

“I literally grew up in the shop pretty much and spent a long time there. There’s a massive part of me in that shop,” she said.

“I cried when I found out it was closing down because I still feel connected to the area. My mum is sad as well.

“I’m like this piece of my heart has been torn out … I’m distraught.”

The cafe closed on Sunday, May 29, after 32 years on the corner of Lygon and St Philip streets, where it became a family favourite for its wide range of Italian-style ice creams, cakes and sweets.

On hot summer nights in its heyday, long queues snaked out of its front door onto the footpath outside, where patrons bustled for space at the outdoor tables. Tourists would trek all the way to Brunswick East just to visit Gelobar.

But it is for the murder of an underworld lawyer that Gelobar will perhaps be best known.

Outside the closed business last week.

While there had been rumours for some time that Gelobar was struggling, the sudden nature of its closing was unexpected.

A small sign has been placed in a front window of the restaurant with the message that “due to difficult times” the owners of Gelobar had decided to close from Sunday, May 29.

“Thank you for your support. We will miss you!” the message concluded.

The 189 square metre ground floor of the Gelobar building is now on the market for lease for $84,000 per annum (the upstairs level is leased to an accounting practice).

Through the front windows there are signs that equipment has been removed and bricks are being prepared to rebuild a wall between the original store and a building next door into which it expanded about a decade ago.

The store’s closure was confirmed by a man who answered the café’s phone and identified himself as the manager but did not provide his name.

“We’re making some renovations at the moment and we don’t know if we will reopen soon,” he said, adding that the works would take several weeks.

Gelobar’s website address appears to have been taken by an online retail organisation, but its Facebook page makes no mention of the store having closed.

The owners did not respond to further offers to comment for this story.

“We started very humble. We had plastic chairs and tables because we couldn’t afford anything better, but then we built up a good business, a very good business.”
Original owner Paola Campi

Opening its doors for the first time on October 1, 1990, Gelobar played an important role in the renaissance of the Brunswick end of Lygon Street, transforming a neglected shopping strip into the food and nightlife hub it is today.

“That part of Lygon Street was very empty when we opened up, there were barely no other shops around” said original owner Paola Campi, who opened the store with her late husband Tommaso Striamaglia.

“There was Romantica Pizza and Zia Teresa [restaurant], and Mondo Music on the other corner near Teresa, and the post office across the road.”

The couple had run a cake shop in Lygon Court in Carlton for several years before they opened Gelobar. Mr Striamaglia had learnt his trade as a pastry chef back in his native Rome.

From the start, Gelobar was committed to the use of use of organic ingredients, with no preservatives and additives, using a traditional, home-made recipe. It offered 36 flavours at any time, ranging from Amerena cherry to Cointreau, mango to Zabaione. And if they did not have a flavour a customer wanted, they would make it from scratch. Chocolates and a wide range of cakes and sweets, including Italian festival cakes were also available.

Ms Campi said it took several years for word to spread but soon visitors from interstate were venturing up Lygon Street to seek out the little shop in Brunswick that made “the best gelato in the whole town”.

In 2002, Mietta’s Best Australian Restaurants guide agreed, acclaiming Gelobar as “Quite possibly the best ice cream in Melbourne”.

Outside and inside Gelobar in the early-2000s. Photos courtesy of Paola Campi.

“We started very humble,” Ms Campi said.

“We had plastic chairs and tables because we couldn’t afford anything better, but then we built up a good business, a very good business.

“We would use natural ingredients and make the ice creams from scratch.

“That doesn’t happen these days.”

Mr Striamaglia died in 1992, and Salvatore ‘Sam’ Scullino became a business partner, eventually buying Ms Campi out in the early-2000s.

After Mr Scullino died in 2011, a share of the business was then sold to criminal lawyer Joseph ‘Pino’ Acquaro, while his widow, Rita, and daughter, Carmel, continued running the shop.

Over the past decade the business had expanded to encompass the building next door and moved away from its original focus on gelati and pastries to full restaurant meals, a wine bar and functions.

Acquaro, who was a prominent member of the Calabrian community, was gunned down outside the restaurant after closing time on March 15, 2016. Two months earlier, the second floor of the building which housed the restaurant had been mysteriously damaged by fire.

A handyman who had done maintenance work at Gelobar has been charged with Acquaro’s murder but is yet to go to trial.

The business and building remain in the ownership of the Acquaro family.

A typical night outside Gelobar in more recent years.

Nadia Ruscio, who began working at the shop alongside her mother as a teenager and continued until she was in her mid-20s, remembers that in its heyday Gelobar was a hub for the Brunswick Italian community.

She said a cafe next door, Lamour (which later became part of Gelobar when the wall separating them was knocked out), was frequented by Italian men who would sit and play cards, while a restaurant and bar upstairs called Soli was also popular with an older crowd.

“My mum worked there and then through the school holidays I would go down there and hang out so I used to do little jobs like clean tables and wash dishes and learnt how to use the coffee machine and serve customers and I worked there through high school,” she said.

“It was so much fun. I have so many good memories.

“We would stand there for hours serving people and the line would go out the door outside and sometimes we wouldn’t finish work until midnight, and you’ve got to remember I was still at high school.”

She said Ms Campi was the driving force of the shop until she sold out of the business at the turn of the millennium.

Ms Campi said she had not set foot inside the cafe since she sold her share of the business but she still felt like a part of her and her husband remained in the Gelobar.

“I’m very proud because we helped to build the area up,” she said.

“I am sad in a way that it has ended up like this but to me the essence of the Gelobar wasn’t there any more. People say they missed the old Gelobar.”

Today, there are plenty of other gelati options in Brunswick, including along the Lygon Street strip that Gelobar helped to revitalise. But none has the mystique and history attached to Gelobar.

Now all we have left are the memories.