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Grande’s: The Love of a Local Legend

Michelle Brotohusodo

Since 2013, the number of new eateries in Canberra has grown at an incredible rate. But as they open their doors and Canberrans flock to be the first inside, there are industry stalwarts which quietly and confidently carry on in the background. One such place is Grande’s in Manuka, owned by local legend, Laura Grande.

Grande’s opened in 1983 and still has its original shop façade and fitout, as designed by another local legend, Frank Arnold (otherwise known as The World Famous François (Arnoldo Artiste)—if you ever meet him, ask him how he got that title). Serving up traditional Italian fare, it’s long been a favourite amongst those in the know, and its clientele has ranged from politicians and journalists to local families and artists. But at Grande’s, it doesn’t matter who you are. Laura, according to Frank and her nephew Marco Marzotto, treats everyone the same.

“She cares about everyone,” they told me when I sat down with them. “She knows everyone who walks through the door, and if a new person walks in, she’ll go up to meet them and get to know them too.”

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Unfortunately, due to a serious car accident two months ago, Laura has had to be in hospital and away from her beloved café and community. But how she’s dealt with the situation speaks volumes about her character.

“I’ve never seen her down. She’s not even remotely bitter about the accident,” Frank said. “The thing that’s motivating her to get better is getting back in the shop. She can’t use her right side at the moment, and she’ll have to use a wheelchair. I told her that she’d have to learn how to use her right side again, or she’d just go round and round in circles in the chair. She just laughed and laughed when I said that.”

Frank has known Laura and her family for more than 40 years, and shared with me the story of how Grande’s came to be. “Laura’s husband Ettore was a civil engineer. The deal was that he’d work until he was 40 and set them up as a family. Then he would retire, and Laura would get to live her dream—opening a little café.

“True to his word, Ettore retired at 40 and they opened Grande’s. In the morning, he would get their son Roberto ready for school and put out the tables and chairs, and Laura would run the café. She’d do the cooking, and Ettore was the host, front of house. They would make people feel as though the café was their home.”

Sadly, Ettore passed away a number of years ago, but Laura has kept Grande’s going strong. “It’s a lifestyle for her, not a job,” says Marco. Prior to the accident, Laura continued the cooking in the kitchen while Marco was the front of house. These days, assisted by a small number of staff, he’s running Grande’s on his own til Laura comes back.

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“It’s an easy community to work in,” Marco said. “We have a number of regulars.” One of these is Frank, who’s been coming in at the same time every day for about 17 years, and told me that if he hadn’t shown up by 2pm, Laura would send someone to check his house.

I asked Marco and Frank to describe Laura. They both seemed a bit stumped at first, but it became apparent that this was because they couldn’t think of a simple description that would do her justice.

This is some of what they came up with: a dynamo, short, enigmatic, crazy, wild, doesn’t stop, a pint-sized rocket, an unsung hero. People just love her. She unites this area of Manuka, she’s a legend. She’s a Lifeline counsellor, she’s everyone’s counsellor, and she’s probably saved 1000 lives. “If I [was suicidal and] rang Lifeline, I’d want her on the other end of the phone,” says Frank.

At this point, Sandra from Bodhi Leaf next door stopped by, and they asked her how she would describe Laura. Sandra said Laura was the Wise Owl of Manuka, and so strong and motivated that she’d get through anything.

Fellow HerCanberra writer, Alex Tolmie, also shared her fond memories of Laura and Grande’s: “When I was little it was a Saturday morning tradition that my mum and the three kids would head to Grande’s for brunch. We would usually meet my Aunty Meredith and/or some very close friends, week in, week out. Sometimes I would bring whatever instrument I was learning at the time and busk outside with my siblings/cousins/friends,” she says.

“Laura was always like another aunty to us, especially because my sister is called Laura and she thought that was really special. She loved to hear about what we were doing at school—our triumphs and tribulations. Laura taught us the Italian names for vegetables, like melanzane and carciofi, and she made the best zabaglione gelato I’ve ever had the privilege of eating. I’m sure it was partly because of Laura that my mum was inspired to become an expert in Italian cookery and to study in Italy with Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander.”

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Apart from touching a lot of people’s lives and filling their bellies with good food, we also have Grande’s to thank for al fresco dining in Canberra, according to Frank. “We applied for outdoor dining here, but the authorities wouldn’t approve it,” he said. “Then I found out that this building, the lawn in the middle, and the building across the way were owned by a little old lady. I went straight to her and asked if she’d let Grande’s put tables and chairs outside. She wanted the lawns enjoyed, so she said yes.

“But the authorities weren’t happy and wanted to stop the service of food outside. So I went and saw Richard Refshauge, and asked him to send a letter to the Minister and ACT Health saying if that was the case then we wanted a ban on every outside BBQ or picnic because if professionals couldn’t serve food outside, then amateurs certainly shouldn’t be allowed to. They changed their minds very quickly. We then also got approval for outside dining for Gus’ and another café in Garema Place.”

So next time you’re looking for somewhere to eat, why not visit Grande’s, part of Canberra’s culinary history. Or if you’re already a regular, share your memories of Laura and Grande’s in the comments below.

Photos provided by Grande’s.

The essentials
The place: Grande’s
Where: Shop 4, “The Lawns”, Bougainville St, Manuka
When: Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm, Sat 9am-4.30pm
Food: Traditional Italian savoury and sweet food
Drinks: Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soft drinks. BYO.
Contact: Call 02 6295 94798 or visit their website

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Michelle Brotohusodo

Michelle moved to Canberra vowing to stay for two years, tops. 10 years later, she’s a bona fide Canberra convert. When she’s not working in her day job as a public servant, she’s enjoying Canberra’s culinary delights or finding fun things to do/see in and around town. More about the Author