Gourmet Traveller


“They had to fly a technician up from Sydney to service the La San Marco espresso machine.”



by Fiona Donnelly

For many people in Queensland, the Merlo name has become synonymous with coffee. Twenty-eight years after founding his Brisbane-based café and wholesaling business, Dean Merlo’s Merlo Coffee remains independently owned, with 16 stores and 10 torrefazione (roasteries), supplying more than 1500 cafés and restaurants nationally.

But the family’s steadily expanding coffee empire is just the latest instalment. The Merlo family legacy stretches back to the 1950s, and the arrival of Luigi Merlo from Italy. It’s a history encompassing everything from hand-built guesthouses and groundbreaking espresso bars, to a Brisbane fine-diner which ended up playing host to everyone, from prime ministers to Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II.

Luigi Merlo was one of tens of thousands of Italian migrants who came to Australia in the grim aftermath of World War II. In 1950, he gambled everything to start a new life on the other side of the world, saying goodbye to his wife and family, and his small trattoria in Tirano near the Swiss-Italian border, setting out for a job cutting sugarcane in Queensland.

The contrast between Mackay and Tirano would have been stark. Yet, by the following year, Luigi Merlo was settled enough to send for Maria and their sons, Gino, Luciano and Gian Luigi.

A decade later, Luigi Merlo’s eldest son, Gino, would be frothing cappuccino, presiding over the bustling basement café Milano on Brisbane’s Queen Street

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