John (Giovanni) Portogallo worked the Werribee South market gardens as a child, and then opened up Werribee’s first cafe. He tells Charlene Macaulay about growing up in Werribee, and his late wife Gaetana.

 

What’s your connection to Wyndham?

I was born in Sicily, Italy, in 1926. I was one month old when my father left for Australia. He managed to borrow

£60 to bring my mum and me over. We lived in North Melbourne.

Then dad heard that land was being rented out down at Werribee Park and we moved in 1934. There was 15 Italian families eventually working land there.

When we moved down on to the farm, they brought in old, abandoned farm houses … you know where they play polo now, off K Road? Well, that was the entrance for all those houses. All that land opposite was all market garden land.

 

How did you meet your wife, Gaetana?

My father-in-law and his brother-in-law were originally market gardeners in Bendigo. Then their partner moved to Werribee and [they did too]. Gaetana was 18 months older than I.

I said to my uncle, “You know Gaetana over the road over there, I’ve fallen in love with her”. So my uncle told my father what my intentions were, and he made a night where my father and mother and [future] in-laws met up to talk about it. Her parents agreed to ask Gaetana if she liked me … and she said to her parents, “If you like him, I like him”.

We got married on December 7, 1947, at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in West Melbourne, because most of our guests came from Melbourne and didn’t have a car. The reception was at Federal Hall in Footscray and there was 450 guests. Just before the wedding, breweries went on strike, and the caterer couldn’t find beer! Our next-door neighbour had christened his daughter and he had a big party at home … he had brought three nine-gallon kegs and
used one keg, so he gave us the two left over. Then we went to Little River and got another three kegs.

 

I understand the two of you loved to go out dancing.

My father taught me how to dance and taught my wife how to dance. We’re life members at the Italian Social Club and we used to go dancing there every Saturday night. She passed away 2001. I always carry her photo.

 

What are some of your other interests?

I studied singing at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music for 10 years.

 

You also introduced Werribee to cappuccinos – tell me more.

I opened up the first espresso coffee business in Werribee. This was on Watton Street, next door to where Lowes the chemist is now. It was called Don Giovanni – my name.

The Gaggia machine was all hand-operated … when I first opened the cafe, two women came past and I made them coffee and my wife gave them some home-made cake. I made the coffee with milk and put the chocolate on top, and they said, “Chocolate shouldn’t go there!” But they came every day after that.

It was choc-a-bloc every day and every night. A lot of locals would come and play cards in there.