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Wednesday 6 June 2012

Sydney’s Italian Fruit Shops – The Original Green Grocer: exhibition

When I saw this card, below, in my mailbox I was perplexed for a minute... was it a fancy new delivery service for fruit and veg, with a decidedly retro bent?

But I soon realised what it was all about, and was exceptionally excited at the prospect of seeing an homage to Sydney fruit shops run by Italians. Such a moment in time; such a trip down memory lane for me and those of my generation and younger.

Italian shops were indeed a retail icon in every Sydney suburb for the last 100 years. Throughout much of the 20th century, they had an impact on almost every suburban shopping centre in Sydney. As a part of Sydney’s urban heritage and social history they played a key role in changing Australian eating habits, palates and cuisine.

These fruit shops were an important point of social contact for many Australians who had never met an Italian family before, and had never seen or heard of things like eggplants, zucchini, garlic, spaghetti, sundried tomatoes, olive oil and artichokes.

[Giuseppe Firenze, Joseph Firenze (approx 7 yrs old),and Mary Favolor (age 39 yrs). Circa 1955].

[The Saffioti sisters, Francesca, Isabella and Giovanna Saffioti outside their shop]

[Packing melons (no date)]

[Summer Hill 1954]

My own mother recounts a story where she'd pick up pasta at her local Italian green grocer slash deli and 'gli Australiani' would recoil in horror when they say raw pasta. "Ohhh, what is that? It looks like worms!" she told me they'd say.

Fruit shops were started by the resourceful Italians, many of whom came to Australia in the early decades of the 20th century; there were young single men [fine specimens of handsomeness - it must be said] or young married couples mainly from the Aeolian Islands, Sicily and Calabria, who were prepared to work 18 hour days to make a small business succeed in a new country. The drive of those Italians was unparalleled.

They came from predominantly rural backgrounds, and Sydney’s suburban-based economy offered opportunities to establish small businesses based on the family and compatriot networks. Italians from the same town or village in Italy employed each other in their fruit shops or introduced new arrivals to make contact with the fruit shop industry.

Of the fruit shops established in the 1920s and 1930s, some did not survive the Great Depression. Others were able to maintain a steady clientele and survived the Depression only to be confronted with the difficulties during WWII, when many Italians living in Australia who had not been naturalised were placed in internment camps for the duration of the WWII.

Some Italians were also targets of racism and had their shop windows smashed during the war years. Some older Italians recall times when “we had people who wanted to close our shop. But we also had wonderful Australian neighbours who would knock on our door at night to ask if we wanted any help or any shopping done”.

Italian fruit shops boomed in the postwar period with many thousands of Italians arriving from other parts of Italy. But their decline was signaled during the 1970s by the growth of shopping malls and large supermarket chains. Sadly, the majority of them have disappeared but lucky for us a few real gems remain.

Co.As.It., (Italian Association of Assistance) in collaboration with Australian Centre for Public History (ACPH) at the University of Technology, Sydney, have worked closely with the families of Italian fruiterers, ‘the gatekeepers’ of the stories and images to record over 40 oral history interviews, collect over 250 heritage photographs and precious items of memorabilia.

With the financial support from Fairfield City Council, City of Sydney, Sydney Markets Limited, the NSW Heritage Migration Centre, Powerhouse Museum and Signorelli Gastronomia, you can come along and view this beautiful exhibition entitled Sydney’s Italian Fruit Shops – The Original Green Grocer at Fairfield City Museum & Gallery

The exhibition will be open to the general public from Saturday June 16 to Saturday August 4 2012 and they are encouraged to help celebrate and honour these amazing cultural and historic contributions made by Italian fruiterers and their families.

In conjunction with the exhibition opening, Fairfield City Museum and Gallery will be holding From Italy with Love: a day dedicated to celebrating all things Italian.

You can have gelato, sweets and wood fire pizza cooked in the onsite pizza oven. Entertainment includes the Punch & Judy puppet show [so old school!], and traditional Italian music and games. From Italy with Love will be held on Saturday 16 June 2012, from 12 – 4pm. It is a FREE event. The official launch will be at 2pm by Frank Chiment, Vice President of the Board of Co. As. It

The most exciting part? the exhibition, website and online register will leave a lasting legacy for present and future generations of Australians who fondly remember the Sydney Italian fruit shop that touched theirs, or their families’ lives. www.sydneysitalianfruitshops.com

You can actually include your own stories about fruit shops in and around the Fairfield area in the onine register; just visit www.sydneysitalianfruitshops.com

For more information about the exhibition or From Italy with Love, contact Fairfield City Museum & Gallery on 02 9609 3993.


  1. Love this story, and good on you for helping to keep our culture alive by promoting this! My dad opened the first Italian deli in the Hornsby area in the '70s and intro'd things like mortadella and prosciutto to the non-Italians. Now, prosciutto in particular is so widely used, probably more thanks to show like Masterchef hehe....

  2. Wow, Anna... that is brilliant about your dad! Yes, I think exhibitions like this serve to keep the Italian culture alive, and also show the new generations what our ancestors did and how hard they worked to set themselves up in Australia, in the process bringing a new awareness of the Italian culture [and yes, prosciutto and mortadella and pasta and olives and later, focaccia and sun-dried tomatoes and... well, I could go on and on!] to Australians.

    I have just come back from the opening day and it really is a must to go and see... x