Pellegrini’s staff member Luca Maruzza has described how he frantically searched for his beloved boss, Sisto Malaspina, after he failed to return from his regular afternoon walk in the city.
Mr Maruzza believes he may have been the last staff member to see Mr Malaspina alive, before the larger-than-life hospitality figure was fatally stabbed by terrorist Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, in a frenzied knife attack in Bourke Street on Friday afternoon.
Mr Maruzza, 24, told The New Daily he worked closely with Mr Malaspina behind the bar at Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar and described his boss as “a very loving man” who had become “a father figure to me”.
The young waiter had just had Friday lunch with Mr Malaspina, 74, when his boss left the eatery about 3.30pm for an afternoon stroll, as he did most days.
“He would always be back about 5pm, so I knew something was up because he hadn’t come back,” Mr Maruzza said, fighting back tears.
He ran across the road to the Spaghetti Tree restaurant, owned by Mr Malaspina’s wife, Vicki, to see if he had turned up there.
“I then called his mobile but there was no answer, then I heard the sirens and ran down the road [Bourke Street] to see what had happened.”
But it wasn’t until late on Friday night that he learned the victim was his boss for whom he had a special place in his heart.
“I’ve since heard from people that Sisto had approached the attacker to try to calm him down, which doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “And that doesn’t surprise me – he was just such a loving person, that’s Sisto all over.”
Other reports claimed Mr Malaspina was attacked as he tried to help his killer after seeing the car in flames.
There has been an outpouring of grief across Melbourne and nationally for Mr Malaspina, as many took to social media to pay tribute to the much-loved and respected Melbourne – arguably Australian – institution.
On Saturday morning, a photo of Mr Malaspina and several bouquets of flowers graced the window at Pellegrini’s.
By the afternoon, that had swelled to a sea of flowers and condolence books on the footpath outside the restaurant, which has been closed until at least Monday.
Mr Maruzza was one of many staff, friends, family and customers lined up outside the restaurant on Saturday, including giants of Melbourne’s hospitality scene, Ronnie di Stasio and Con Christopoulos, who was visibly upset by the news.
The owner of neighbouring business American Tailors, Sebastian Giacobello, said he had known Mr Malaspina for more than 40 years and said his death was “beyond comprehension”.
“He is part of the fabric of Bourke Street, of Melbourne,” Mr Giacobello told The New Daily. “It’s just bizarre, I still can’t quite believe it. This is such a huge loss.”
Co-owner Nino Pangrazio did his best to hold a press conference outside the eatery on Saturday morning, but was quickly overcome with emotion. But Mr Pangrazio did manage to remember his his friend, with whom he bought the restaurant 44 years ago, loved life and loved helping others.
The many bar and waiting staff of Pellegrini’s also left a hand-written note on yellow paper on display in the window titled The Best Boss.
“Thank you for making us your staff members as part of your life. You always looked after us like family,” it read.
“Pellegrini’s was your life. We will never forget all that you have done and given us all. We will love you forever.”
Pellegrinis’ place in the hearts and consciousness of Australia was evidenced by the parade of notables lining up to express their grief at Mr Malaspina’s passing.
How terrible. We have all enjoyed his hospitality. Vale Sisto Malaspina https://t.co/TAgzEoYJHq
— Anne Summers (@SummersAnne) November 9, 2018
Sisto, il mio cuore si spezza … I’ve been going to Pellegrini’s since 1987. Never been to Melbourne without dropping in on my man Sisto . South Sydney stickers on the wall and caps on display.My sweet loyal friend, stabbed in the street by a mad man.
Cosí triste. pic.twitter.com/kfj32smdOz
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) November 10, 2018
Shocking, unreal and heartbreaking. I have been visiting Pellegrini’s since school. I just saw Sisto on Monday morning. He insisted I try a slice of his almond cake. He’s a Melbourne icon and a true gentleman. Impossible to imagine the devastation for his family and staff. https://t.co/CPziguJlpz
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) November 10, 2018
I am devastated. I’ve known Sisto’s smiling, beautiful face all my life. My first coffee, my first date, my Melbourne life. This man, this bar, this lane, this community is the heart of Melbourne – and it will always beat strong. #Sisto #Pellegrinis https://t.co/kIcB0KhfNo
— Virginia Trioli (@LaTrioli) November 10, 2018
Mr Malaspina and Mr Pangrazio bought Pellegrini’s in 1974 from Leo and Vildo Pellegrini who founded the business in 1954, and laid claim to having one of the first espresso machines in the CBD.
On a government business website promoting the coffee shop earlier this year, the pair revealed that every weekend they would attract wedding parties who would pose outside the Pellegrini’s sign for photographs.
The pair were hands-on in the thriving business in every sense, ordering produce, dealing with suppliers, washing pots and even chopping vegetables. They didn’t need to advertise as the historic brand was so well recognised.
“Forget about two-day weekends,” Mr Malaspina said at the time of his 40-year association with the bar. “My weekend lasts less than 24 hours. But I’m happy.”
It is normal for people to have strong emotional or physical reactions following a distressing or frightening event. People can seek help and advice by visiting your local doctor or calling: Lifeline 13 11 14, GriefLine 1300 845 745 and BeyondBlue 1300 224 636