La dolce vita Down Under

Ben Stubbs explores the traditions and stories of the Italian migrants who have shaped Griffth.

The men gesticulate as they shout across the table in Italian. White napkins are tucked under their chins to catch drips of Napoli sauce as they scoop up the last of the gnocchi from their plates. A vista of Venice spreads out before me; a winding canal, a gondola and the stones of the Piazza San Marco.

Then a light flickers across the mural and the trance is broken. It might not be Italy, though as I eat pizza di rucula and gambas in a packed restaurant in Griffith, I feel it could be.

Griffith, home to 25,000 people and one of the largest cities in the Riverina, is well-known for its Italian character. What is less familiar is how that came about. Its story began in 1912 when the ambitious Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme was introduced to the area, opening up all kinds of previously unimaginable agricultural options. Farmers and migrants answered the call, none more so than Italians eager to leave Europe after the destruction of World War I.

The western plains offered them similar farming opportunities to their homeland and the Italian arrivals focused on this potential as they built their makeshift homes from discarded cement bags in the temporary village known as "Bag Town".

The town was named Griffith in 1916 and was based on a design by Walter Burley Griffin, who had won the international competition to design Canberra, Australia's new capital, four years earlier.

Many of those initial Italian families took root, surviving the harsh conditions over the years to provide Griffith with its unique identity. It's now said that half of Griffith's population has some Italian heritage.

I'm very careful not to mention the "D" word: drought has hit these parts hard and the people of Griffith are only just starting to have confidence in the weather once again, although the recent rain is giving a new lease of life to the region's fruit growers, winemakers and farmers.

"Ever since the rain came again the people are walking with their heads up," says tourism manager Rick Matkowski. "They're smiling, eating out ... "

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We're dining ourselves, in the unassuming La Scala restaurant, on ravioli with ricotta and spinach, "toppa" pizza, prawns in garlic sauce and slabs of hot, fresh bread dunked in olive oil. We chat until late in the evening, having cracked open a second bottle of locally made durif from the Westend Estate.

The following morning I arrive late to my first appointment, with Bill Calabria. He is owner-operator of Westend Estate, the family winery established by his parents, Francesco and Elizabeth Calabria, in 1945, nearly 20 years after they had arrived in Griffith as migrants.

Calabria changed the name from Calabria Wines in 1974. He's listening to the local Italian language radio station in his car as we greet each other. I don't him tell him that it was possibly the second bottle of his durif that led to my sleep-in.

As he opens the stout wooden doors to his winery to begin the private tour, he tells me his family's story. He now runs this winery with his own children. He shows me the underground tasting room he helped to dig and the table he made from 150-year-old Tasmanian oak barrels.

As it's a Saturday, no one else is around. Weekends are for family time in Griffith so this private tour feels a real privilege. Calabria isn't your average winemaker. He used to be a boxer and when he moved into his father's business he made a horrible discovery. He was allergic to alcohol.

This hasn't deterred him, though, and he says his unique palate and sense of smell gives his Westend Estate wines an edge. Calabria sources many of his grapes from the 600 grape growers in the region. "Everything is done with a handshake contract," he explains. "The world has become so corporate. Griffith is still old school. It's still about honour here."

That old-school passion continues at what is probably the Griffith area's most famous winery, De Bortoli. Darren De Bortoli is waiting as I arrive at his family winery in the village of Bilbul, 10 kilometres from Griffith.

His grandfather, Vittorio De Bortoli, migrated to Australia from northern Italy in 1924 and made his first wine in Griffith in 1928. Darren continues the tradition with some of the most notable botrytis "noble rot" dessert wines in Australia - a case of De Bortoli's premium Noble One 2006 was given to the Pope by former prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009.

Though De Bortoli is the seventh-largest wine producer in Australia, the winery remains a humble place that is all about the people. The staff joke with Darren as we sip Black Noble and petit verdot, and the ladies behind the counter run off to get me a copy of their book, Celebrazione!, so I can cook some of the traditional Italian recipes of the De Bortoli family when I get home.

After a morning of wine tasting I head back to Griffith for some food. The sky seems bigger here as I drive back into town past the flat fields, vineyards and orange groves with honesty boxes out the front for roadside shoppers.

The main street of Griffith is buzzing. It smells of espresso and fresh bread. I stop to buy lunch at La Piccola deli, adorned with hanging peppers and salamis, and leave carrying bags of bread, marinated peppers, olives and antipasti for lunch.

Later, I drive up Scenic Hill above the town to see the Italian Museum. Inside the building, which looks part Italian church and part shearing shed, I meet a local volunteer, Frank Perosin. He takes me through the story of the Italian diaspora in Griffith.

Each region of Italy has a display, including feathered cappello hats of the Alpini people, wedding dresses and statues from Verona, and Bianchi bicycles and flags.

One of the biggest days of the year for the Italian community here, Perosin tells me, is the Festa della salsiccia: the annual salami festival where the locals showcase their best produce.

On my way back to town, I stop at the Hermit's Cave. This strange collection of caves and walls built into the side of Scenic Hill is the work of Valerio Ricetti. He was an Italian drifter who arrived in Griffith in 1929 and decided to shelter in the caves of Scenic Hill during a storm.

He liked the view and the solitude so much, he stayed. A stonemason by trade, he constructed a rabbit warren of rooms, walls and gardens across the escarpment.

Though he was an outsider and a recluse, the people of Griffith accepted Ricetti for what he was for the 14 years he lived outside their town. The spirit of generosity towards strangers, I'm glad to say, still continues.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Tourism Griffith.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Griffith is 570 kilometres from Sydney, so allow six hours to drive. There are daily train-coach connections from Central Station but the direct Griffith Xplorer train runs only on Saturday; see countrylink.info. Rex Airlines has daily flights from Sydney, from $120 one way.

Staying there

Griffith Centrepoint Apartments has comfortable self-contained apartments in the centre of town from $120 a night. Corner of Yambil and Ulong streets; see centrepointapartmentsgriffith.com.au.

Eating there

The author's recommendations include La Scala Italian, Dolce Dolce Pasticceria, Clock Restaurant and La Piccola Deli — all in Banna Avenue.

Tasting there

Maps and details of the wineries in the area are available from Griffith Visitor Information Centre; phone 6962 4145, see visitnsw.com.

More information

See griffith.nsw.gov.au and griffithgateway.com.

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