I Found A Hero! Nino Borsari.
Turning into Lygon St, in Melbourne, is akin to inadvertently slipping through a wormhole and popping out somewhere in deepest Italy. Tables clutter the pavements, crowds overflow from the coffee and gelato shops and the smell of Italian cooking fills the air. As the expensive convertibles speed by with beautiful people draped across their luxurious interiors and young couples promenade arm in arm, close your eyes and you could be living La Dolce Vita in downtown Rome.
As we were enjoying our own evening promenade, a Maitre De, who oozed Italian Charm, skillfully diverted us from our path. We walked into his cigarette smokescreen and before we knew it we were sat in his restaurant ordering our antipasti and drinking fine Italian wine. The restaurant in question was Borsari’s, on Borsari’s Corner, and it was undoubtedly the most authentically Italian part of Melbourne’s Rome away from Rome.
Before being seated we had been admiring the road bikes in the cycle shop a couple of doors down the street. Appropriately, it was a beautiful Italian Bianchi road bike that had caught our eye. While we drooled and dreamed, I had noticed the bike shop and the restaurant bore the same name, and as I now looked up from our table, I noticed a large neon sign above our heads. The sign, the bike shop, the restaurant and the corner it sat on, all had the same name, Borsari. I was intrigued.
I asked our waiter why the Borsari name was so prominent. “Ah”, “he was a great man, a great cyclist”, he said before disappearing into the busy dining room. As a keen bike rider, I was obviously even more intrigued. I tried for the rest of the meal to find out more. Unfortunately, the restaurants reputation for exceptional Italian food was working against me and the staff were kept too busy to help with my enquires. My intrigue would have to wait.
The next day I did some rudimentary research and what I found out was fascinating. The Borsari name came from a man named Nino Borsari and his life story could keep a scriptwriter in business for years.
He had come to Australia to race his bicycle on the cusp of the Second World War. Unfortunately for Nino, with the outbreak of war, Australia and Italy became enemies and Nino became an “enemy alien. He was unable to return to Italy, he was forbidden from racing and was lucky to still have his liberty. His sporting reputation was the only thing that stopped him from being interned.
Nino came from Cavezzo, near Modena in Italy. He was born in 1911, and first started his cycling career on a heavy old iron delivery bike he rode for the local pharmacist. He would leave his delivery route to chase the pro cyclists when their training rides came through town. Nino was so successful in his pursuit that after trying, and failing, to lose him, one of the pro cyclists decided to help out by teaming up with the local pharmacist to buy Nino his very first racing bike. Nino never looked back. He would go on to become cycling champion of Italy and win a Gold Medal in the Four Kilometers Team Pursuit at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Apparently, while Nino was competing in America, he found time for a screen test at a Hollywood studio. But unfortunately, his Hollywood career was less successful and he chose to continue with his cycling.
After the war, Nino decided to stay in Australia and settle in Melbourne, rather than return to Italy. He married an Italian opera singer named Fanny and opened a corner shop in Carlton in 1941, on ‘Borsari’s Corner’ the very corner we had been eating the evening before.
They called Nino Borsari the Baron. He was a sleek and dapper gentleman, who, according to the locals, strode around Carlton in the ’30s and ’40s “like a golden Adonis”. He went on to rack up a host of notable business and social achievements including introducing the Bianchi bicycle range, the European game of Bocce, and various kitchen utensils, including the first Cappuccino machine to Australia. The latter was unthinkable at the time as Melbourne was a resolutely tea drinking city. But, to see Lygon street with it’s many Italian cafe’s bars and restaurants, to inhale the pungent smell of coffee heavy on the air and to watch the beautiful Bianchi bicycles ride by, is to realize what an effect Nino Borsari had on his adopted city.
Nino became the unofficial spokesperson for the Italian people in Australia, the president of the Australian Boxing Federation, a founder member of Juventus Soccer Club and was even a delegate for the successful 1956 Melbourne Olympic games. Not bad for a boy who back in his native Italy had started cycling during the depression riding on a diet of nothing but wild grass and Polenta.
Nino died in 1996 aged 84. His daughter Diana Espino, said her father had never fully recovered from head injuries he had received 12 years previously when a hit-and-run driver struck him from behind whilst he was out cycling. How tragic then he should be brought to his maker as a result of doing what had defined and driven his life.
When he first arrived in Melbourne in 1934 to compete in a race to celebrate the city’s centenary, Melbournians couldn’t have imagined how this suave Adonis with his curly, black, slicked back hair would shape and influence their cities future. Sitting outside Borsari’s Restaurant, it is impossible to ignore the impact the man Italians called ‘The Cavalier’ and Australia knew as ‘The Baron’ has had upon his adopted city. Thanks to him, Melbourne is one of the great cities to both eat and ride.