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January 14, 2007

In Dulwich Hill, Sydney, Finding the World in a Few Blocks


AT 5 a.m., as clubbers in trendy Sydney neighborhoods like Darlinghurst and Newtown head home, early-risers in Dulwich Hill are buying fresh loaves of Italian rustico and pugliesi sourdough at Luigi's Bakery. “Bread is our culture,” says the owner, Luigi Carrieri, of his predominantly Greek, Italian and Portuguese customers. “They love bread here. It's my kind of area.” By 9 a.m., half his homemade loaves, rings, rolls and other specialties are gone.

Like London, Sydney comprises a loose agglomeration of separate neighborhoods. Many still retain a strong ethnic flavor, though their demographics shift with immigration patterns and with the flight of prior immigrants to wealthier suburbs. Mr. Carrieri and his family arrived in Australia in 1970 as part of the huge influx of southern Europeans who immigrated from the late '50s through the '70s. Middle Easterners and Asians started coming in the late '70s; by the '90s Asians were 70 percent of new immigrants.

Elsewhere in Sydney, gentrification has transformed working-class neighborhoods in the city's Inner West and Inner East areas into highly desirable and expensive yuppie enclaves. Ten years ago, funky Newtown was filled with students and young hipsters who frequented its two long blocks of cheap cafes, bookstores and second-hand clothiers. Today's Newton is virtually wall-to-wall restaurants and chichi boutiques.

Dulwich Hill, part of the so-called Outer Inner West, is just 10 minutes southwest of Newtown, yet it retains a charming Old World simplicity and sense of community long since gone from nearby Sydney neighborhoods.

Among its 12,000 or so residents are Greeks, Italians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Portuguese, Vietnamese and their Australian-born offspring. “All the cultures get on; no single group dominates,” says Con Kazanzitidis, the Greek-born owner of the Last Drop Café. Artists, writers and academics are moving in, he says, but not the trendy types. “Newtown draws tourists,” he says, “Dulwich Hill is for locals.”

A Thai painter, Phaptawan Suwannakudt, moved to Sydney in 1996 after marrying an English-born art historian, and the couple bought their Dulwich Hill home in 2000. “In some parts of Sydney I do feel ‘other,' ” she acknowledges. “But here I feel comfortable, not like I'm in a minority.”

Her next-door neighbor on one side is a Greek family, on the other a New Zealand-Chinese couple. Across the street are Italians and Turks and further down a Cambodian family of Chinese origin runs a convenience store that also sells Greek newspapers. “You walk around the neighborhood and know there'll be something here for you,” she says. “People in Dulwich Hill embrace each other. Everyone feels a part of the community.”

Commerce in Dulwich Hill clusters around the intersection of Marrickville and New Canterbury Roads, a former tram line terminus. While shops on pedestrian-friendly Marrickville Road thrive, four-lane New Canterbury is a busy thoroughfare with no street parking. It would be impossible to describe all the multicultural merchants along these few blocks, but here's a sampling.

Regulars at Luigi's Bakery (396 New Canterbury Road; 61-2-9560-5008) like Jose Oliveira seem oblivious to the cars whizzing by. At 7 a.m. Mr. Oliveira, a Portuguese native, stands on the sidewalk holding his bread purchases and chatting with a fellow customer. A resident of nearby Marrickville for 35 years, Mr. Oliveira comes to the store for bread despite the many new Chinese and Vietnamese bakeries in his own once-Greek neighborhood. Chinese bakers use too much yeast, he says, and their products don't taste right the following day. “Luigi's bread is good,” he says.

Before the burly Mr. Carrieri, a fourth-generation baker, heads off to bed at 8:30 a.m., he talks about sourdough acidity and other nuances of the craft he learned from his father while a teenager in Brindisi. Once in Australia, Mr. Carrieri senior abandoned traditional baking techniques for the faster modern ones, but his son preferred the labor-intensive old methods and in 1987 went out on his own, buying his small shop from its Greek owner in 1997. The original Dulwich Hill Hot Bread Shop sign still hangs out over the street.

A few doors down at the popular M.N.A. Meats (380 New Canterbury Road; 61-2-9569-1330), Michael Vizakos, the butcher, stands behind the counter deftly whacking individual chops off a side of lamb. “I'm too busy to talk,” mutters Mr. Vizakos, a paunchy Cypriot with a thick mustache and a fisherman's cap, and asks me to come back after the Easter rush. When I say I won't be around that long, the butcher, the 53-year-old “M” portion of the shop's acronymic name, puts down his cleaver and wipes his hands on a striped butcher's apron. (“N” is his son, Nicholas; “A” his older brother, Anastasis.)

Michael Vizakos produces a black-and-white photo taken in Cyprus showing two scrawny kids dressed in school uniforms standing ramrod straight on either side of a seated child holding a baby. “I'm the one on the left and that's Anastasis on the right,” he points proudly. The Greeks — and Cypriots — who settled in Dulwich Hill in the late 1950s and '60s own a lot of local property and remain the neighborhood's predominant foreign-born population group. They patronize the seven-year-old M.N.A. as much for its friendly ambiance as for the traditional lamb “pluck” (innards). Other popular Cypriot specialties include homemade patourma (dry sausage made with beef, garlic and paprika) and loucanica (a pork sausage marinated two weeks in wine).

In 1961 when the 13-year-old Tony Sentas sailed into Pyrmont port from the Greek island of Limnos, his first impression of Australia was the enormous bar of chocolate held aloft by his father (who'd arrived two years earlier). “This must be a very good country,” thought the awestruck youngster. He and his brother started selling fruits and vegetables 36 years ago in Dulwich Hill and their open-fronted Sentas Brothers store (485 Marrickville Road; 61-2-9569-1885) is the oldest in the area. Excellent produce and low prices certainly contribute to its continued success, but it's Tony's welcoming and ebullient personality that keeps customers coming from as far away as Coogee (an eastern beach suburb).

Contrary to appearances, the Last Drop Café's hip white logo on the black outdoor awning and the minimalist interior décor aren't harbingers of oncoming Dulwich Hill gentrification, but instead the latest incarnation of a 30-year family business (538 Marrickville Road; 61-2-9572-9800). When the 41-year-old Con Kazantzidis emigrated from Greece 30 years ago, his family bought the building for a hardware store. Seven years ago Con gave up his high school teaching career to transform it into the neighborhood's first cool cafe. His diminutive mother makes the Greek items like spanakopita and keftedes that are listed on a small blackboard.

The unpretentious interior of Fernandes Patisserie (516 Marrickville Road; 61-2-9568-2114) belies the delectability of its Portuguese pastel de nata (custard tarts) that come in coconut cream, ricotta, almond and lemon flavors. The owner, Carlos Fernandes, part owner of a bakery in nearby Petersham (once a largely Portuguese community), moved to the neighborhood three years ago to cater to the local Portuguese residents. Many now gather at the small square tables to sip the excellent coffee and eat the flaky tarts, Madeira cakes and other pastries.

Some types of the salami, olives, biscuits and cheeses at Gino & Mary's deli (560 Marrickville Road; 61-2-9560-7456) are also available at Sydney supermarkets, says Mary Grasso, one of the owners. And in many Sydney suburbs, supermarkets have obliterated small family-run businesses. But no supermarket can compete with the chunks of prosciutto suspended on hooks above the front window or the delicious homemade cracked olives. Nor can they offer personalized service by people who were working in the area long before Gino Grasso, who is Sicilian born, and his Australian wife took over six years ago from the previous Sicilian owner.

From floor to ceiling, every inch of the tiny Izmir Market (471-473 Marrickville Road; 61-2-9568-3243) is crammed with canned goods, olives, pickles, coffee, jams, rosewater bottles, pulses, dried fruit, flatbread and yogurt. In one corner of the store, owned by Sevim and Osman Kiraci, is a large selection of videos recently taped from Turkish TV.

Abla Pastry (425 New Canterbury Road; 61-2-9560-5088), on a busy corner, is the largest supplier of Lebanese baked goods in Sydney. Specialties include beloure (noodle pastry pressed with pistachio and rosewater), bruma (similar but rolled and deep fried), 10 kinds of baklava and assorted date, coconut and semolina squares.

Copyright 2007 New York Times/Jennifer Gampell