The People of Haberfield, Sydney’s Real Little Italy

Nicole | BittenByTheTravelBug | July 6, 2014

We found Frank Bonfante of Franks Fruit Market arranging fresh produce when we arrived and his passion for making sure the food is freshest it can be is evident, encouraging us to taste one of the 16 varieties of tomatoes he had in the store that day.

The small family run business is small but packs everything you’d want from a local fruit & veggie shop and Frank is happy to list of his favourite recipes to go with the produce if you want to taste something new.

A Gourmet Safari of Haberfield, Sydney

Bridget Davis | TheInternetChef | 2013

3-4 doors up from Paesanella is Franks fruit market, a tiny green grocers store that is owned and operated by Frank Bonfante. With no less than 16 varieties of tomatoes on any given day, Franks fruit market sure knows how to pack a whole lot of value into a limited floor space. Chances are if you were to visit this good old fashioned vege shop , the man himself Frank will  greet you somewhere between the fresh borlotti beans and zucchini flowers with a warm smile and an offer of assistance.

Despite its relatively small stature, Franks store is big on sensational flavors, offering some of the more unusual but fairly usual Italian staples that make up their wonderful diet. Fresh plump figs share the shelves alongside sweet Italian Tropea onions, something that Frank believes will begin to grow in popularity as more people discover their glory. Australian grown and plaited garlic hang from the entrance way together with the ubiquitous bag of sweet navel oranges so commonly seen hanging la luna style in the green grocers shops that line the high street in some of Sydney’s older suburbs.

Must try: Pick up as many varieties of tomatoes as possible. The sweet Johnny love bite,  acid free oxheart or juicy little cherry tomatoes.  Frank will guide you on the perfect tomato for your dish or personal preferences.

Frank's Fruit Market

'It reminds them of when they were children'

Frank and Mary Bonfante
Dimitrios and Cristina Zandes
Frank's Fruit Market
Ramsay Street, Haberfield

Do the sums: Six days a week for the past 40 years, Frank Bonfante has risen around 2 o'clock each morning to go to Sydney's wholesale fruit and vegetable markets, initially to the old Haymarket markets then, after they relocated, to Flemington. Take out the 10 days or so each year that he shuts his Haberfield family business to take a break, and it's likely that Mr Bonfante, 63, has visited the markets more than 12,000 times.

"I still enjoy it," says the reserved Sicilian-born merchant. "It's in the blood," says his wife, Mary, 56. "He's got a huge amount of people that respect him in that market."

His Flemington friends rallied around him in last April when his foot was crushed by an errant forklift. And so, of course, did his family. In the months since as he has recovered from the painful injury, his daughter, Cristina, 32, and her husband, Dimitrios (Jimmy) Zandes, 38, have joined the business.

Frank Bonfante was born in Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. His father, Gaetano, worked multiple jobs. "He was a jack of all trades," says Mr Bonfante, "to raise a family he had to do everything". Gaetano was a small-scale farmer, worked in Lipari's dangerous pumice mines and, at night, he'd fish — for swordfish, tuna, sardines and anchovies. Mr Bonfante remembers how his mother would cook the sardines — spine out and stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, cheese, garlic and parsley, fried, served with a salad. His father kept a few sheep but their meat was a rare treat.

The family migrated to Australia in 1964 and Mr Bonfante snr got a job at the Austral Bronze Company. Frank, the eldest of five, was 13 when the family arrived, and lasted only briefly in high school before starting his lifetime as a fruit shop worker, first in Five Dock, then North Sydney.

"One of my paesanos [countrymen] told me there was a shop in Haberfield," says Mr Bonfante. In 1974, he took over the lease on the Ramsay Street premises. About 18 months later he bought the fruit shop on the other side of the street and gave it a bold red and green sign: "Frank's Fruit Market, Self Serve".

Mary's mother had a dress factory and shop across the road from the new shop and, while she would assiduously avoid the young man who delivered fruit and vegetables to her parents' home, she would sneak peeks at him from the rooms above the factory. One day he arrived at her home with a bunch of red carnations instead of a box of produce.

The couple have worked side by side in the shop ever since. Little has changed. The bold sign outside remains. The string bags of oranges and the ropes of garlic still hang at the front and the granny-smith-green interior has stayed the same. "I had one lady years ago who, when they were painting the shop, said, 'oh no, don't paint it'," recalls Mrs Bonfante. "A lot of them, it reminds them of when they were children."

She has strong memories of Ramsay Street in the '60s and '70s. She remembers Mr O'Shea who ran the chemist and Mr and Mrs Scott who had a haberdashery on the corner that sold school uniforms (where Dolcissimo restaurant is now). She remembers the Anglo bakery that she sometimes visited on Saturday mornings to get cream buns or finger buns. She remembers a dress shop called Jean's and how, every year, the owner's skinny, elderly mother would dress up as Tinkerbell — tutu and wand — and stand on the back of a decorated truck that went up and down the street. "It was just a community thing for Christmas, for the fun of it."

Frank Bonfante's memories are of his father, who passed away in 2012. "When he finished work he used to come to the shop and help until I locked up." After he retired, Mr Bonfante snr would spend his days in the shop, sitting on a brown stool in the corner. "He would come and pass the time there. He was very much part of the shop."

Family is everything for the Bonfantes. "My kids grew up in the shop; in the community everyone knows my children," says Mrs Bonfante. Now people are asking her if her eldest child, Gaetano, an opera singer studying in Verona, is coming home for Christmas. "When are we going to hear him sing?" they ask.

And the community is getting to know Jimmy too. "Oh my god, Mary," the local beautician said recently, "everybody loves your son-in-law."

Meet My Suburb : Haberfield - Franks Fruit Market


Our next stop is Frank's Fruit market. On the day we visit this unassuming fruit and vegetable shop happens to have an incredible 16 varieties of tomatoes including some divine heirloom breeds and my favourite Johnny Love Bite tomatoes. These are not a breed of tomato but a grower of sweet, succulent mostly local tomatoes. Frank is well known around here and often speaks at Maeve's food safari tours.

Frank offers me a taste of the Johnny Love Bite truss tomatoes. "These are not like other truss tomatoes which are just for show" he tells me and I have to agree that I have found most supermarket truss tomatoes lacking in flavour too. These trusses are sweet and sing with a true tomato flavour. These are the kinds of tomatoes that you can eat as apples they are so packed full of flavour and are worth every cent.

I ask about the vivid and deep red Bello Rosso tomatoes and he explains that they are good for sauce as they are picked mature and are sold at an advanced ripeness. We buy some Johnny Love Bite vine ripened tomatoes and clutch these precious babies on the way home.


Frank's Fruit Market

Frank came to Haberfield in 1973, taking over a fruit shop at 117 Ramsay St, Haberfield. One year later he moved to 94 Ramsay St, Haberfield and the shop continues to operate to the present day (2010). Frank's father has helped over the years, and our son Gaetano worked with us while he studied.. Now our eldest daughter Cristina works with us part time. It has been wonderful to work with our children and see the way they take pride in the family business.

Over the years it has been amazing to  watch the transformation of our shop. We have had to make a few adjustments to the interior but have always tried to keep that old fashioned feel which our customers always comment on, remembering their own local fruit shop when they were children. It has been, and still is, a joy to be serving generations of families who have supported us through their loyalty and friendship over the past 37 years in the Haberfield community.

As we have watched these families grow, so too has our family grown and we feel very much a part of this small community. It is a privilege to be able to work in such a warm, friendly and supportive environment. We have found great pleasure in bringing our customers produce from local farmers whom we have in turn supported over many years. Our customers have embraced our Italian food and culture, trying new recipes and old family favourtes, always returning to tell us how much they enjoyed them.

We hope to continue bringing our customers great produce and service for many more years to come, and look forward to making many more new friends along the way.

Slow Foodie backs fast food protest

Paul Bibby | SMH | October 17, 2009

Believer in local food traditions … Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, visiting a Haberfield fruit shop owned by Francesco Bonfante.  Photo:  Marco del Grande

Believer in local food traditions … Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, visiting a Haberfield fruit shop owned by Francesco Bonfante.  Photo: Marco del Grande

A CAMPAIGN against the construction of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986 was the catalyst for an international movement against fast food and the destruction of local food traditions.

Yesterday the man who started it all lent his support to a similar fight against the American burger chain in the home of Italian culture in Sydney.

Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, looked at home among the traditional Italian delicatessen and fruit markets of Haberfield, where residents are battling plans for a McDonald's on Parramatta Road.

''All over the world we see big food producers trying to destroy local food economies, so you have to use education and pressure,'' said Mr Petrini, who is in town for the Sydney International Food Festival. ''My advice is to work hard for education and for the support of the whole community for the protection of your traditions - because if you do this you can [win].''

Residents say a hamburger outlet would clash with Haberfield's strong Italian food culture, which focuses on local fresh produce and home-made cuisine.

''I moved to this suburb, in part, because of the famous Paesanella cheese shop on Ramsay Road and Frank's fruit shop, and the bakery. Those shops are the reason people flock here on the weekend,'' resident Greg Johnston said. ''Having a McDonald's here goes against everything the suburb stands for.''

McDonald's has consistently argued that there is strong demand for an outlet in the suburb and that the design of the building will be an improvement on the abandoned car yard on the site. A spokeswoman said the company prided itself in supporting local farmers and food manufacturing businesses, and ''recognised a sustainable supply chain as being absolutely critical to our ongoing success''.

Local food economies like Haberfield are at the heart of the Slow Food Movement.

Mr Petrini believes they are gradually coming to rival fast food and mainstream food industry, particularly in the US and Europe. ''The difficult thing is you have to fight against the power of advertising by the mainstream producers - it is a powerful machine that is targeted at children that tries to turn them into consumers instead of citizens.''

He said Australia was ''far, far too slow'' in adopting sustainable practices, slamming its food regulators for prohibiting the production and sale of cheese made from raw milk. ''You can import this cheese from France and Italy but you can't make it here - this is stupidity! Do you think that French bacteria is in some way safer than Australian bacteria? This must change.''

The Tomato King....