Louis Botha Avenue’s ‘Little Italy’: What is left of la dolce vita?

Amid Louis Botha Avenue’s shift in demographics, a few businesses stand out as relics of the former Italian migrant community that made the area home.

When you hear “Buongiorno!” from Samson Muvhali, you know you have arrived in Johannesburg’s slice of what was once dubbed “Little Italy”.

For many years, Italian immigrants made Louis Botha Avenue the hub to meet, shop, dine and reminisce about their motherland. Now a Tshivenḓa-speaking security guard’s workplace, Super Sconto, is among the few reminders of the area’s “Little Italy” accolade. 

Super Sconto, which translates as “super discount”, sits on the bustling thoroughfare that extends from Hillbrow to the edge of Sandton. Instead of functioning as another food store it acts as a time capsule of a bygone era, filled with an importer’s paradise of goods. 

LEFT: Samson Muvhali, the Super Sconto security guard who has worked at the food centre since 2010. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

A boom in migration sparks a community 

Like many Italians in the area, the store’s general manager, Roberto Casti (66), has an immigration story of his own. The man, wearing a red Lacoste shirt and watch with a strap to match, explains that he was born from Neapolitan and Sicilian parents into an Italian colony in Eritrea, northeast Africa, after which he ventured down to South Africa in 1980 to look for greener pastures.

“The only place that could give us an opportunity was South Africa; that is why I came here,” Casti says, carrying an Italian accent untouched by his life in Africa.

Louis Botha was flooded with Italian immigrants when a dynamite factory in Avigliana, a town north of Italy, hit dire straits in 1894 and subsequently closed down. Dr Anita Virga, an Italian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the closure, coupled with the later effects of World War II and severe unemployment, led to many skilled workers being transferred to the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory on the Pretoria Main Road.

“The first person usually arrives and calls the others, saying ‘Come here, there is an opportunity’,” she says.

Virga, who moved to Johannesburg from Turin, Italy, six years ago, explains that after the war Italy remained physically and psychologically destroyed, forcing Italian citizens to venture out and find work.

A four-minute walk southeast of Super Sconto takes you to Marco Pecci (MP) Mirror & Glass. The owner and namesake ended up in the area due to similar circumstances.

Pecci tells the story of his parents who were forced to leave Marche, Italy, in the Sixties when employment in their home country hit a dismal low. Following the numerous success stories of fellow Italians they migrated to Johannesburg, eventually establishing their glass workshop on Louis Botha in 1991.

This being said, the same influx of Italian influence in the form of delicatessens, shoe shops and jewellery stores which lined the avenue has since vanished. Now Super Sconto and MP Mirror & Glass are among the only Italian-owned work spaces left on Louis Botha.

Bringing ‘Little Italy’ back to Louis Botha

A mechanical engineer by trade, general manager Casti did not realise his heritage would play such a major role in his future until he met Franco Pisapia, who established Super Sconto in 1996.

Over the past 23 years Super Sconto has changed almost as much as the avenue it calls home. The store had humble beginnings, operated by only four staff members including Casti himself. The food centre functioned humbly on a single floor, juggling a deli, coffee bar and kitchen all within an arm’s length of each other.

“We were also renting part of our premises to Standard Bank. When their lease expired, we took over and 12 years ago we revamped,” Casti says.

It is Monday morning at Super Sconto and for the general manager breakfast consists of cappuccino and small talk before the real bustle begins. He does his rounds in what still looks like a newly renovated store, passing between aisles of imported products and racks of liquor on the ground floor.

A tiled staircase separates the two storeys and leads him into the spacious restaurant, complete with a designated smoking area and a deli stacked with fresh meats.

“It’s nothing fancy. It’s all very simple, like old Italian tradition. We start with the sauces early in the morning and whatever is on the blackboard is the menu of the day,” says Casti.

Roberto Casti starts his morning at Super Sconto, his place of work for the past 23 years.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

Come lunchtime the restaurant is packed, but a hush settles over customers who delve into their meals, engrossed in Italian goodness.

The only thing breaking the silence is muffled conversation from downstairs, starting with questions such as “Quanto costa?” meaning “How much is it?” rising from the ground floor. Upon further inspection these questions are directed not only at the staff of Italian descent, but also at the African workers like Muvhali (49) who have picked up on Italian lingo since working at Super Sconto. 

“I have worked there since 2010 … so I learn new words from customers every day,” the security guard says.

A traditional component of the store that remains unchanged is its family element. Pisapia’s daughter, Chiara (20), who has left Johannesburg to pursue her studies in financial sciences, finds herself being drawn back to Super Sconto on a weekly basis. The vibrant yellow pasta and strong smell of espresso in the air do wonders to jog her memory of a place that has become more of a home than a business.

Fetching one of these recollections, a dark-haired and jovial Chiara says, “I would always sit on Roberto’s lap while he would offload the container, and once all the products were offloaded we would all play hide-and-seek in the basement between the high boxes and tins of products.”

Employees and customers take us through the history of Super Sconto, the now renowned Italian food centre with humble beginnings in the unlikeliest of places. Video: Gemma Gatticchi

Back at Pecci’s house of glass the space is not ideal for child’s play. At first glance the store seems empty of human presence, until the lean and grey-haired 47-year-old pops up from behind a desk crowded with tools and newspapers. 

The self-proclaimed “one man show” explains that many Italian businesses on Louis Botha closed down because they were dependent on the same community that left “Little Italy”.

Peering into his workshop, it is difficult to avoid your reflection. Mirrors lean against almost every inch of the inner store walls, making space for a giant glass-cutting table that dominates the space.

Pecci disregards the idea of following fellow Italians out of the area.

“There were also many banks here, and when they closed due to crime many people moved, but I am pretty happy where I am. I am really not worried about the crime because I do not have anything people want to steal,” he says.

Looking at his store from the outside, it is clear that he means what he says. While others choose to plaster their transparent walls with newspapers, barricading their contents from passers-by, Pecci’s glass store acts as a glorified window into his work space and life.

Marco Pecci cuts a mirror for a customer in his workshop on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi
Marco Pecci specialises in window repairs, sandblasting, bevelling and glass furniture. Many of his current customers once formed part of Louis Botha Avenue’s “Little Italy”. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

While the entrances of neighbouring stores like Pecci’s sit tightly on the pavement bordering the avenue, Super Sconto is fenced off, with an adequate amount of parking to accommodate customers who no longer reside in and around Louis Botha.

Today the Italian food centre acts as a drawcard, bringing customers back into an area they have since forgotten about, but the attraction is not limited to the Italian community. The current members of Louis Botha often indulge in what the last of “Little Italy” has to offer.

Felix Mpofu, a Louis Botha worker and resident, towers above his colleagues at Skyblue Security Systems, situated conveniently next door to Super Sconto. They all huddle to share their experience of the store.

“It’s fantastic and the service is good. Everyone is always friendly, and they have so many different items. I really cannot complain because I am more than welcome when I am there,” Mpofu says.

According to its website, by 2019 and 27 staff members later, Super Sconto has grown to be the biggest Italian retail store in South Africa.

“We’ve got customers in Cape Town and Durban. Some of the retailers shop here. We’ve got restaurants that we are supplying too,” Casti says.

This being said, there is a wealth of Italian stores that failed to adapt to the avenue’s shift in economy and demographics.

LEFT: Deli assistant, Rosina Senwamadi slices and packages mortadella for a customer in the popular Super Sconto deli.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

A mark that remains 

On 226 Louis Botha Avenue, what is now a vacant building was once Ponte Vecchio Jewellers, owned by Annarita Ravenna (75). A keen Ravenna explains that in 1951 her family moved from Florence, Italy, to South Africa when her father was offered a job at what was then Iscor, a steel company now known as Mittal Steel South Africa.

The Ravenna family used the only trade they knew to start a business on Louis Botha and make a living.

“My father’s brothers were jewellers from Florence, but he was a fitter and turner and the wish of having a jewellery shop was always within him.

“We chose Orange Grove because of its Italian community. Even the Italian Consulate moved to Houghton to be closer to the community,” says Ravenna, who helped to establish Ponte Vecchio Jewellers in 1968.

The jewellery store prided itself on manufacturing, remodelling, repairing and importing jewellery from Italy, employing many locals to add their charm to the store before it closed its doors in 1996.

RIGHT: Thomas Mpfuni waits for customers next to his snack station on Louis Botha Avenue where he has been working since 2010.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

“Some Italians moved away, but I think it was because their offspring married and moved away, mainly to Bedfordview because of the Italian Club being there. I don’t think that there is another ‘Little Italy’ anywhere else in Johannesburg,” says Ravenna, who has since moved back to Italy.

Wilson Mapheto (68) worked at the Italian jewellery store and now runs a jewellery workshop of his own on the south-east end of Louis Botha, hidden from view by a chipped white wall and two drooping trees.

“Believe it or not, Ponte Vecchio Jewellers brought me to where I am today. Even now I am still part of the Ponte Vecchio family,” says Mapheto.

Today the once glamorous home for gold, silver and pearls looks more like the garage of an abandoned house where the flashy window decorations have been traded in for random strokes of graffiti.

Thomas Mpfuni (64), another Louis Botha resident, now uses the pavement in front of the defaced building to make a living in his own way, selling an assortment of chips and popcorn.

The mute man, referred to as “uncle” by customers and passers-by, greets you with a smile as warm as the sultry Monday afternoon sun. He sits modestly, with nothing but one chair and several boxes as a makeshift table. Mpfuni packs his goods out neatly, grouping the same products together and laying them out in solitaire fashion.

BELOW: A homestyle ciabatta sandwich made with blue cheese at Super Sconto. The sandwiches are a quick and popular dish at the Italian food centre.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

The man who proudly dons his Zion Christian Church hat and badge has been sitting at his unofficial spot every day since 2010. Mpfuni provides for his family, who live next door in the equally dilapidated Margaret Court apartment block. 

He is a popular stop for many on their way to work. Those who buy from Mpfuni know how to communicate with him, often using hand gestures to make small talk and establish a price for a desired product. 

The same history of determination to make a living runs rampant along the avenue through the likes of Casti, Pecci and Mpfuni too. It is this determination that brings a strange attraction to the area.

 

When a store becomes a personal landmark 

Now, instead of functioning as a makeshift country or vessel to an Italian motherland, Louis Botha and its surrounding areas operate more as a point of reference for those who are hungry for days gone by.

“Many Italians still go to places like [Super Sconto] to have lunch … When I really need something that reminds me of Italy, then I go there, so it is more a sentimental attachment than really a need,” Virga says.

As the sliding doors open for the last customer to exit, you are sent off with a final shout of “Arrivederci!” from Muvhali, as the deafening commotion of Louis Botha consumes the solace and air-conditioning that came with entering Super Sconto.

By leaving the store, the area’s “Little Italy” is reduced once more, only now instead of four walls it is confined to a plastic bag, ready to be taken with you to the place you call home.

 

Dave Garlick frequents the food centre for its range of Italian coffees and chocolates. Above he inspects a box of Sperlari, an Italian chocolate brand. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

FEATURED IMAGE: A women rolling dough for baking. Photo: Supplied

RELATED ARTICLES: