One day, a lady…came and said, “Can I ask you something?”. I said, “Yes, what?”. “How can you have children when you’re working all the time?” and I said, “That’s my business”. I never saw her again.
Date and place of birth
Born 1928, Salvi, prov. Reggio Calabria, Calabria
Date and place of arrival in Australia
April 1950, Fremantle aboard the Sebastiano Caboto ship
Type of migration
Sponsored by fiancé
Life in Italy
Maria Pisconeri (née Panetta) was born on 16 March 1928 in the small village of Salvi in Siderno in the province of Reggio Calabria in the Calabria region of Italy. Maria’s parents were farmers and she was born into a large family of ten children.
Most of the brothers helped my father on the farm. We girls used to help Mum with sewing [and] needlework. Everybody helped because we had to live.
After completing the three years of primary school available in their village, Maria had to persuade her parents to continue her schooling in Siderno because it was expensive for their large family. Maria used to walk by herself almost 7km to get to school in Siderno. She later boarded with nuns so that she could attend high school in the next town of Locri. With only one year left to qualify as a teacher, Maria had to leave school when she became engaged to Giuseppe (Joe) Pisconeri, from the neighbouring town of Agnana, who planned to migrate to Australia.
Everybody said to my father, “See how much money you spent on your daughter and now…?”. But I didn’t mind because when I got here I could write, I could understand and could do anything when I started work.
After Maria and Joe’s engagement in June 1948, Joe and one of his brothers, Domenico, left for Australia in October sponsored by their brother Nicola. Joe’s parents had earlier moved to the United States. During this time, Joe’s mother became ill with cancer so the sons arranged for their parents to join them in Australia where the weather was warmer. For the next 18 months, Maria and Joe wrote letters to each other.
Life in Australia
In March 1950, Maria left Italy from Messina on the Sebastiano Caboto ship to be reunited with her fiancé in Western Australia.
I didn’t eat for 23 days because I was so sick – the smells of the diesel, beer, cigarettes…When I reached Fremantle my dress didn’t fit me because I’d lost so much weight.
Maria arrived in Fremantle on 17 April 1950 where all the passengers had to go through a customs inspection as people used to try and smuggle food into Australia such as figs, oil and seeds.
Maria and Joe got married one month after she arrived in Australia. Joe’s mother was in a wheelchair and they were not able to have a party. Maria’s sister-in-law lent her wedding dress so that Maria could have a photograph taken to send to her mother in Italy. After they had married, Maria cared for her mother-in-law, who was living with them, until she died a few months later.
During this period, Joe was working in the Paolini’s fruit shop in Leederville and the owners used to teach Maria the English names for products and how to serve customers. Later when Maria was pregnant with their first son Alberto, she and Joe ran Previtali, a delicatessen in what is now the suburb of Northbridge, while its owners were on holiday in Italy for nine months.
Before Maria migrated to Australia, Joe and his brother Nicola had bought a business together on the corner of Lake and Newcastle Streets with the intention of opening their own shop. After six months of difficulties with the previous tenant who refused to leave when his lease ended, the Pisconeri’s set up their own shop. For many years, the two brothers and their wives and families lived and worked together supplying the growing Italian population in the area with the familiar tastes of ‘home’ – olive oil, pasta, tomato sauce, cheeses, olives, salami, fruit and vegetables. Many of the products were imported from Italy and the fresh produce came from local markets. Pisconeri’s fed a generation of single Italian working men with their famed panini rolls.
I see Alf Barbagallo sometimes and he says, “Signora, I’ll never forget your panini”. Panini? They were half loaves of bread!…At night they’d pick up a bottle of oil, pasta, fresh tomatoes…, Cirio paste, which they took home and cooked for themselves.
Maria used to work long hours in the shop. The Pisconeris went out of their way to serve their customers, even those who would arrive at closing time despite the risk of prosecution by regulatory authorities. They also filled food orders from rural areas across Western Australia.
In 1954, the Pisconeris expanded their business and opened a very popular coffee and gelato bar next to their grocery store. They used to make their own gelato and roast their own coffee. In the early 1960s, the Pisconeris also began operating a wholesale business across the road, which supplied specialty Italian produce to supermarkets, continental delis and restaurants in Perth. They then leased and later sold the store but continued to run the wholesale business.
During this period, Maria and her family continued to live with her brother-in-law’s family above the store. Maria had to juggle looking after their four children with working in the family business.
I don’t know how I managed, I worked so hard, washing in the night…
In the 1960s, the two sons were sent to boarding school and a nanny was employed to assist both families with childcare and housework. Eventually, the families needed more space and so built their own homes.
The area in which the Pisconeris ran their business had many Greek and Italian residents. Later Maria saw more Australian customers coming into the store. Maria and Joe became Australian citizens themselves in 1960.
The Australians would buy and wanted to learn too. They’d ask me how I’d do this or that. They liked prosciutto and provolone. They didn’t know what it was and they’d ask, “What’s this?”. When I came in 1950 you couldn’t even buy a coffee in the shops!
Now retired, Maria gains much enjoyment from seeing her grandchildren and tending her rose garden. Her eldest son Albert runs Pisconeri Fine Food and Wines in Mount Hawthorn, which is a continuation of the Pisconeri wholesale business. Maria finds it difficult to visit there as it brings back many memories of Joe who died in 1991.
Sometimes I’d like to go there, not to work, because I’ve worked too much, just to look after things...When people talk and ask for Joe I get so emotional, so I don’t go.