Piccolo Bar sale a sign of the times

The Piccolo's famous sign. Photo: John Moyle.

The sale of one of the oldest continual businesses in Kings Cross is also a sign that the area is witnessing the closure on its raffish and bohemian legacy, writes John Moyle.

‘Piccolo’ is Italian for small, which in the case of the Piccolo Bar is truth in advertising, as it only fits around a dozen people inside, even at a squeeze.

Whatever its physical size, the legacy of the Piccolo Bar is enormous and, fortunately, is so well documented that its importance to the history of Kings Cross is assured.

At the end of the month, the current operators of the Piccolo Bar will hand over to new business owners who plan to add cocktails to the mix of coffee, croissants and conversation that has been the cafe’s mainstay since 1952.

“Being a custodian of the Piccolo legacy has meant a lot, and now it will be a cocktail bar under the same name, and that will put some new life into it,” Brenden Kanikevich, the current business owner, said.

The Piccolo story began in 1952 when Osvaldo Comito, known as ‘Ozzie’, took over an already established cafe and began catering to a new clientele of musicians, actors, writers, painters, migrant workers and the nascent beatniks of the day.

Fast forward to 1964 to when a young Italian migrant, Vittorio Bianchi, began working the coffee machine and waiting tables.

Vittori Bianchi, in a 2000s image. Photo: Vittorio Bianchi & friends/Facebook.

This was the beginning of an institution that so defined its time that its legend still persists today, despite the many changes the area has undergone since.

That it has done so is due largely to the personality and durability of Bianchi, who would go on to buy the premises and become the glue that held together one of the most diverse groupings of people ever to gather in Sydney.

The year Bianchi started work at the Piccolo was also the time that Kings Cross was transforming from a genteel location with a hidden harder edge to a red-light district, in a sexual explosion that saw the opening of Les Girls and a proliferation of strip clubs, clip joints and late night eateries.

These establishments provided an instant clientele for the Piccolo, which stayed open long after most of them had closed.

“I had one of my first dates at the Piccolo in the ’60s and was just wide eyed as to what was happening there,” Lynette Komidar, historian, said.

“I was wanting to be a beatnik.”

The era of the beatnik barely got a look-in when it was surpassed by the hippie movement, and the Piccolo’s location on Roslyn Street was perfectly placed among the head-shops and fashion shops and weed sellers, all catering to the new social movement.

“There were so many layers to the Cross, like the strippers, the prostitutes, the drug addicts and the ‘normal’ people and for all, the Piccolo was like a home, it was a haven,” Komidar said.

During the ’70s and ’80s, the Piccolo was the second home to the Cabaret Conspiracy performers, which often included Bianchi in stage roles.

As a place that welcomed gays and transgender people, the Piccolo was hit particularly hard during the AIDS epidemic.

Many writers who have written about the Piccolo have included a long list of celebrities who ventured in late at night – but they were just embellishment, not part of the fabric of the place like the regulars.

Performer Vashti Hughes has been one of those longtime regulars, first visiting the cafe after nights dancing at the nearby Tender Trap, a popular mid-’90s cabaret lounge club held in the old Les Girls building.

In 2015, Hughes wrote and performed Piccolo Tales at the Piccolo Bar, which was made all the more difficult as each night the tiny cafe would attract crowds that spilled out across Roslyn Street.

Piccolo Tales was telling the story of the changing of the Cross from the ’60s until now through the eyes of Vittorio,” Hughes said.

Piccolo Tales was the perfect vehicle for many to experience the sting in Bianchi’s tail without suffering the consequences of a real life engagement, as he was played by Hughes, who delivered the lines with rapid fire accuracy.

In the play, Hughes has Bianchi say: “There’s no room for people to be strangers … we are all nuts together – everyone is fucking mad – if you don’t think you’re mad, then that’s the real madness.”

As the Piccolo resisted the changes to the smoking laws, Hughes’s delivery of Vittorio’s line, “So please don’t ask me not to fucking smoke in my own cafe, or I’ll kick you out … for not smoking,” always got an enthusiastic response.

An early 2000s George Negus Tonight report on ABC-TV profiling Vittorio Bianchi and the Piccolo Bar. Video: peter124u/YouTube.

Poet and taxi driver Charles Freyberg’s story of how he came to the Piccolo probably reflects that of many others who would also become part of the fabric and help make the place so special.

“I thought the place was a bit pretentious at first, and I thought that these people are just too out of it and too whacky,” Freyberg said.

“So I went back enough times and I saw faces that I liked, and I realised that I could could meet friends who were outside the social norm.

“These people weren’t talking about real estate and their debts, but talking about music, life and outrageous anecdotes.”

Bit by bit, legislation and regulation began gnawing away at Kings Cross, taking away the danger sometimes present, but also its excitement.

The strip clubs closed, the brothels moved online and the once heaving nightclubs fell silent, and along with them, many businesses like the Piccolo struggled in a contracting late night economy.

The new social media also meant people did not have to leave their home to communicate and modern coffee makers even made a passible cup of java.

Lynette Komidar is using the internet to ensure the Piccolo legacy and memories will survive the changes by starting the Facebook group Vittorio Bianchi & friends, which currently has over 450 members.

Vittorio Bianchi (centre) with friends and supporters at the Piccolo Bar. Photo: Vittorio Bianchi & friends/Facebook.

Like many of his former customers, Vittorio Bianchi is now living in the suburbs, reading and dealing with his health and Covid-19, but each Thursday making the trip to the Piccolo Bar to take his window seat.

“It’s just changing, changing times,” Bianchi said.