Three generations of family hospitality at University Café

Katie Johnson

When Paul Ferraro came to University Café in 1985 as a 16-year-old looking for work, he found more than he bargained for.

On his first visit, a Friday night at 9.30pm, the first person he saw was the owner’s daughter Lara – the woman who would later become his wife.

“I was a kid, straight out of school, 16 years old and working at a pizza place in Moonee Ponds, so all I knew was coffee and pizza,” Mr Ferraro said.

“She was there the first night and pointed me to her dad. It was school holidays back then and I remember overhearing them talking in Italian about how she wanted to go away and he wanted her to work.”

Although it wasn’t love at first sight, Mr Ferraro said he “kept an eye on her” from then on.

“We started dating when I was 18, got married at 23 and I bought my share of the business when I was 21,” he said.

“Basically, I came in, got a job, married the daughter, and here we are.”

Mr Ferraro’s now father-in-law, Giancarlo Caprioli, had owned the business with his wife Beverly since 1978 after taking it over from the Donnini family.

However, as one of Melbourne’s first espresso bars, University Café has actually been serving Carlton since it was first opened in 1952.

Beverly Caprioli said that as one of the only restaurants serving authentic Italian food at the time, it was the place to be for Italian immigrants and tourists.

“Back in those days dinner would start at 6pm and by 8.30pm there would be nobody in the street – it was mainly for the newly arrived Italian men who needed a place to speak their language and drink coffee,” Mrs Caprioli said.

“It was also very popular with sporting people, especially when the Olympic Games came to Melbourne in ‘56 a lot of the Italian Olympians came to the restaurant.”

Although Lygon St has changed significantly since then, Mrs Caprioli said that some things have still stayed the same.

“It’s been 43 years now and we’ve got three generations of family under our belt,” Mrs Caprioli said.

“A lot of original customers who would bring their families still come in – it’s such a small world.”

Mr Ferraro said the key to the restauraunt’s long-running success was consistent, home-style Italian meals cooked and served by a family.

“Customers have been coming for as long as I can remember – kids I was serving 25 years ago now have their own kids,” he said.

“It’s all about good, consistent meals with no frills.”

Although Mr Ferraro said the lockdown had been really tough on the business, he was keen to see Lygon St liven up again and return to some of its former glory.

“We have heaters outside, umbrellas and we’re planning to open on November 5 so we’re hoping to get back to normal,” he said.

University Café is located at 257 Lygon St, Carlton •

For more information: universitycafe.com.au

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