I moved to Melbourne the same time ‘Rocky’ bought a struggling pizza house in a little known strip in North Carlton. Someone had told me that you couldn’t call yourself a Melbournian until you had eaten pizza at Totos (Lygon St pizza house) after midnight. I still never have.
But I have vivid memories, not long after arriving in this city, of standing 3 or 4 deep in a crowded little pizza shop called LaPorchettas wondering what the ordering system was. It was noisy and completely chaotic. A short bloke who was slapping his thick hands onto lumps of dough behind the counter glanced up and caught my eye amidst the chaos. “What do you want?” I shouted my order from behind the shoulder of someone in front of me. Rocky barely acknowledged me. I stood there for 15 or 20 minutes in the bustle, wondering if anyone was remotely aware of my order, let alone processing it. I was completely flabbergasted when my pizzas arrived.
It was the first of countless visits. The pizzas were good, and cheap. Really cheap. Back in those days you could get a large pizza for between $5 and $7 bucks. The first time I went to sit down in the restaurant (the shop next door had been bought now had some tables and chairs in) I went to the register to pay for the group I was with and the same short bloke was behind the register. I handed over my plastic; “Sorry mate, cash only.” There was a queue behind me, I was bone dry of notes or coins. As I was contemplating what to say, Rocky just said matter of fact, “Pay me next time,” and shifted his eyes to the person behind me.
In those days La Porchettas had a thing going where if you spent more than $20 in the restaurant, you got to spin a wheel. Every slot had a prize; a free pizza, bottle of (cheap) wine, a carrot, glass of water. In the 90s we were lucky to be part of a wonderful bunch of people who met at our place every Wednesday night to talk about life and spirituality. Before getting to our house in Brunswick, dinner was at Rocky’s. Most were students, so cheap food was the go. We could all eat for 4 or 5 dollars. We got to know a waitress called Di who always made sure we had plenty of the pizza dough bread for free. We shared Margherita and Hawaiian pizza. We thought we were kings when we had spun and won free wine the week before. Sometimes people lashed out and got entree cannelloni or penne al burro which was pasta tossed in plain butter. We laughed a lot about al burro pasta.
The place was plastered with photos of Rocky with famous and beautiful people. Imagine Brian Brown and Rocky with their arms around each other, Rocky with his thumb up. He was a racing fan, so photos of bikes and F1 cars were everywhere. Every inch of the walls seemed to have amateur photos of him and his friends playing and having a good time.
These days I don’t go there often, but a few months ago we all (the family) went down for a weekend pizza/pasta dinner. Rocky was still behind the counter of this shop (which has now annexed 3 or 4 shop fronts) and I think I read recently that he has franchised another 80 La Porchetta stores around Australia. They all have the trademark bustle although nothing comes even close to the first experience I had back in the mid 80s.
Yesterday, on his way to the Grand Prix, Rocky died in a motor cycle accident at the St Kilda junction. He was a ‘colourful’ character; lets say he was not known for compliance. In truth, he was not the kind of person I admire, but my experience of living in Melbourne has been enhanced via his vision.
And I am reminded again of the vulnerability of life. Every day is truly a gift.