What’s it like to grow up on one of the most famous streets in Melbourne? University Cafe’s Beverley Caprioli reflects on a life built around espresso and homestyle Italian cooking on Lygon Street.
Beverley was a teenager fresh out of boarding school in 1960 when she heard of a well-paying job in Carlton.
“My mother told me ‘nice girls don’t go to Lygon Street’, but I took the job against her wishes. It was a 24-hour espresso bar,” Beverley Caprioli said.
“I went straight to making coffee. There was no barista school back then, you just got thrown in the deep end. I made quite a good coffee!”
Many of Beverley’s early customers at Don Basilio were Italian migrants who would go on to change the face of Melbourne’s cuisine and culture.
They came to drink espresso at all hours, between shifts at factories. To speak Italian together. To play pinball.
Giancarlo Caprioli was a manager. He quickly won her over.
A year later, the newlyweds opened their own espresso bar and kitchen, next door to Watts Shoe Store on the corner of Lygon and Grattan streets.
Cafe Sport was an icon of Lygon Street dining for decades.
Giancarlo cooked all-Italian fare in the upstairs kitchen, while downstairs, Beverley dispensed caffeine and lunch rolls to factory workers before dawn.
“I grew up on Lygon Street. I’ve spent my whole life here. I met my husband here.”
On the weekends, Beverley learnt to make pasta from the matriarch of nearby University Cafe.
“Senora Milani would teach me a new dish every day. Pasta, tortellini. That’s how I got involved in Italian food. That’s why I’m passionate about Italian food still today,” she said.
The Milanis were among the first three families to import Italian espresso machines in Melbourne. The gleaming vintage Gaggia is still on display at University Cafe today.
Changing of the guard
After more than three decades at University Cafe, the Milanis entrusted the business to Giancarlo Caprioli in 1978. Beverley joined him soon after, while their three children were still young.
University Cafe has been in the family ever since. Son-in-law Paul Ferraro set eyes on the Caprioli’s daughter when he came looking for work as a 16-year-old. Their grandchildren are part of the furniture, proudly front of house, and slinging and sipping espresso.
Paving the way for outdoor dining to flourish across the city, University Cafe was the first venue in Victoria to receive an ‘on-road’ liquor license in the 1990s.
“Oh we enjoyed a drink on the footpath that evening, but two police came past and one of them didn’t like it much. We stood our ground because we had the licence right there in the window,” Beverley said, smiling.
They expanded more than 30 years ago, after the Lebanese takeaway shop next door sold them the building.
Heads of state, industry leaders, professors and past students became regular customers and still make ritual visits.
While Giancarlo graced the front-of-house, Beverley preferred to be the go-to person in the kitchen.
“Giancarlo is the face of University Cafe. He has charisma and he’s good with people. He knows everybody who comes to the cafe. He even introduced Paul Keating to Zegna suits,” Beverley said.
“We’re seeing generations of customers now coming through. A chancellor from the uni would bring his daughter for a meal – she was knee-high to a daisy – and now she comes with her baby.”
Fun fact: University Cafe may be a treasured meeting place for intellectual types, but it was actually named after a nearby laneway.
The Capriolis received a Lord Mayor’s Commendation in 2016 for more than 30 years in the business. They’re nearing eligibility for a 40+ award in the program, now named Lord Mayor’s Small Business Awards.
Watch this video for an insight into everyday life for Beverley and Giancarlo at University Cafe in 2016:
Now in their 80s, Giancarlo and Beverley have taken a step back from the day-to-day operations, but Beverley still runs the books.
She also keeps an eye on the classic Italian dishes coming out of the kitchen, and takes bookings from long-time customers who drop in to request a favourite table.
“Some of our customers have been on Lygon Street their whole life too.”
A neighbourhood Future Melbourne Committee meeting was held in Carlton on Tuesday 4 April from 6pm. Watch on demand.