The annual recipients are selected for their tenacity, foresight and dedication with which they have revolutionised the state’s food and wine scene.
Among those awarded this year are two iconic names within the Italian community in Melbourne, as well as a young Italo-Australian who has transformed her passion for food into an opportunity to help hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers.
They are Nino Pangrazio and the late Sisto Malaspina, the former owners of Melbourne institution Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, and Loretta Bolotin, the co-founder of Free to Feed.
“June 10, 1974: it’s embedded in my brain,” Pangrazio said, recalling the day he and Malaspina took over Pellegrini’s from the previous owners and founders, brothers Leo and Vildo Pellegrini.
His father, Domenico Pangrazio, who had migrated to Australia from Asiago in the 1920s and was known as “Rosso” (Red) for the colour of his hair, had worked for decades at Café Florentino, the other historic Italian restaurant on Bourke Street.
The Pellegrini brothers also worked at Florentino during that time, and they became family friends.
When Pangrazio began looking to buy a business, the Pellegrini brothers heard, and said: “Fine, we’ll sell to Nino, the son of Rosso, and nobody else!”
“Sisto and I had known each other for about 10 years, having worked together first at the Stanmark Reception Centre in St Kilda, and then for the well-known catering company, Peter Rowland,” Pangrazio said.
“I immediately thought of him as a business partner.
“I rang him up and said I was buying Pellegrini’s and the rest is history.”
Vicki Malaspina with a photo of her late husband, Sisto Malaspina. (Photo: Kate Shanasy)
Over the years, 66 Bourke Street has become a popular destination for a diverse and loyal group of diners, from Italian migrants to politicians taking a break from the nearby Parliament House, fans returning from a sporting event and theatregoers.
Countless stars have sat at its tables, from Billy Joel to members of AC/DC and Pearl Jam.
“Pierce Brosnan visited us so often when he came to Melbourne a few years ago that he knew everybody by their first name,” Pangrazio exclaimed.
“One of my favourite clients had to be Gough Whitlam; he was a wonderful man.
“Once my wife and I were in Italy for a biannual meeting for the Australian Committee for Venice, and we were staying in the same hotel as Gough and his wife Margaret.
“Gough asked me where he knew me from and I told him to think about it for a couple of hours.
“After two hours on the dot he asked me the same question and then I just said one thing: ‘ossobuco’.
“He replied: ‘bloody Pellegrini’s!’
“He always ordered the ossobuco.”
Pangrazio and Malaspina worked by each other’s side for 45 years, before the tragic terrorist attack on Bourke Street on November 9, 2018, in which the latter lost his life.
At the state funeral in Malaspina’s honour, a mourning crowd flooded out onto the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
“Sisto was always happy and bright,” Pangrazio said of his friend and business partner.
“We were like salt and pepper, always together.
“We had the odd scuffle, but you can count them on one hand.
“I miss him very much, and the whole community misses him immensely.”
From a restaurant in the heart of the city, the map of the winners of the Legends Hall of Fame and Trailblazer Award extends to the suburb of Northcote, home to the non-profit social enterprise Free to Feed.
Loretta Bolotin, the co-founder of Free to Feed. (Photo: Kate Shanasy)
In an interview with Il Globo earlier this year, Bolotin outlined what led her and her husband Daniel to establish a professional springboard for refugees and asylum seekers, in the form of cooking lessons and food-oriented initiatives.
Founded in late 2015, the organisation assists people seeking asylum to find meaningful employment opportunities using their existing skills and experiences, and facilitate community interconnectivity.
Bolotin was inspired by her experience in the humanitarian field, as well as her family’s migration story.
Having come into contact with different people and cultures during her business trips, she was always amazed by the human warmth that arises spontaneously at a dining table – something she experienced in her own home growing up.
“I’m delighted and humbled to have a spotlight on our work at Free to Feed and, hopefully, on the incredible courage of people seeking asylum in our community.
“Many more locals are ordering our Friday night Brave Meals and taking an interest in reading about the stories of the cooks behind each feast.
“We are all celebrating by Zooming with friends and family and cooking together via Free to Feed’s All Together Now Curious Cooks Club where, through immersive videos and beautiful ingredients, we recreate feasts.
“We always celebrate with a glass of good local wine in hand and culminating in a shared meal with our families.
“I’d like to thank my husband Daniel for sharing the vision and the talented team of professionals at Free to Feed; they’re more than just colleagues, they’re like our extended family.
“I’d also like to thank the loyal community members who continue to order our meals, engage in our social media posts and are now cooking up storms in their own kitchens; we wouldn’t exist without their support.”