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Saturday 16 September 2023

Celebrating 70 years of an importer who helped give Australia an Italian accent

At a time when Italian restaurants owned by culinary "superstars" open and close over a period of just a couple of years, it is nice to pay tribute to a Melbourne institution that is this year celebrating 70 years run by the same family. 

Enoteca Sileno is a Melbourne business that has helped shape the food and wine culture of Australia, with founder Gino Di Santo a pioneer of introducing authentic, regional flavours of Italy to Australians. 

The business is still run by the third generation of the family in 2023. 

At the Enoteca Sileno store in Carlton, the Portelli family is extending its retail hours and hosting a swag of events every Saturday in the lead-up to Christmas. 

Visitors can see a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano being cut in the traditional way, or sample some panettone in the lead-up to Christmas. 

The Enoteca Sileno story began in the town of Termoli in the region of Molise, Italy. where Luigi ‘Gino’ Di Santo was a young man who wanted to prove he could make it on his own post World War II. 

After arriving in Australia at Bonegilla Migrant Reception Center outside Wodonga in north-east Victoria, he saw a gap in the market for imported Italian food and beverage products in Melbourne.

He returned to Italy to secure the rights for La Cimbali espresso machines, and in 1954 he installed the first machine in Cafè Lexington on Exhibition Street. 

Enoteca Sileno’s role as an importer of Italian foods began with Plasmon, Italy’s most famous brand of baby food, which was in much demand by the young migrant Italian mothers.

In the following years Gino would introduce Australian cafes and restaurants to Italian mineral water, gelati-making machines, La Minerva cheese graters and coffee grinders for delicatessens and cafés, along with preserved vegetables such as artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegars and Italian liqueurs such as Amaro Ramazzotti and Amaretto di Saronno.

But Gino also play an important role as an ambassador for Australian products in Italy. He exhibited at Italian international food fairs, giving Italians their first taste of Carlton Draught and Swan Lager beers, as well as Australian tinned fruit. 

He was also responsible for what was possibly the earliest exhibit of Indigenous Australian artefacts in Italy, with a display that included bark paintings, wood carvings, and tools.

In 1982, Gino opened the Enoteca Sileno retail store in Carlton, selling direct to the public rather than to restaurants and cafès. 

After relocating to Lygon Street in 2004, Enoteca Sileno is now under the guardianship of Gino’s daughter Rosemary Portelli-  a former teacher and sommelier - and her husband John Portelli, along with their son Daniel. 

Gino died in 2010, but today, the company portfolio extends across thousands of products from classic biscotti, polenta from the Italian Alps and dozens of condiments, sauces and spreads, as well as Italian craft beers and liquors. 

“Times change, and we want to go with it - but we’ve got the classics everyone Italian knows and loves, and the funny thing is some of the products we’ve had from Gino’s early days are still our biggest sellers," says Rosemary Portelli. 

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