Ben Hills 

The pasta was inedible. The roast chicken spurted blood when you sank a knife into it. But the “schnitzel” was the last straw – instead of juicy slices of chicken or veal, the waiters plonked platters of objects like greyish sandshoe insoles on the table. That was when the riot began.

As plates of food were upended on the table and hurled to the floor, Italian insults were shouted and the manager, Tony Boniciolli, was terrified. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he said. “I have seen some pretty bad food in my time, but this was the worst … some of the kids even had to be taken to hospital.”

It was Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 14 last year, and 700 people had booked for an $18-a-head lunch at Sydney’s Apia Club. What should have been a festive celebration turned into a fiasco that proved one of the final nails in the coffin of what was once one of Australia’s most successful ethnic institutions.

Losing money hand over fist, saddled with a huge burden of debt, with its members deserting and dying, and its facilities run down, the club faces its last hurrah as early as next week. Creditors led by an Italian bank owed more than $7 million are expected to finally pull the plug, closing the club and putting the landmark building on the market for redevelopment.

“It will be an absolute tragedy if we can’t save it,” says the Italian-Australian member of the NSW Legislative Council, Franca Arena, “The Apia Club is part of our history. Back in the 1950s, when Italians first came here in large numbers, it was the only meeting place where they could enjoy their own food and language and culture. Menzies came here, and Whitlam, and this was symbolic – for the first time we were not just a bunch of wogs, we were part of the community.”

But, as Franca Arena and other community leaders battled to put together a rescue plan this week, there was gloom at the two-storey blue-painted concrete blockhouse on the banks of Iron Cove, which has been the headquarters of the Associazione Polisportiva Italo-Australiana (Italian-Australian All Sports Association) since 1960. Only Tony Boniciolli was still hoping against hope, as the days ticked away to the final deadline, that an offer to raise millions of dollars to buy out the debt would come through.

On two recent visits, at lunchtime and in the early evening, the carpark was almost empty, the bocce court deserted, the upstairs ballroom silent apart from the monotonous drone of “Twenty-two, ventidue” as a group of elderly members played bilingual bingo. In the foyer, in a desperate bid to attract new members, a sign offered $6 of “club money” for every $5 membership, and a prize Mitsubishi Lancer, unfortunately dented manoeuvring it into place.

How has what was once Australia’s premier ethnic sports club, with 11,000 loyal members, a champion soccer team and a healthy budget surplus, been reduced to these dire straits? Interviews with dozens of club officials past and present, accountants, lawyers and ordinary members would make a melodrama worthy of Puccini: mismanagement of epic proportions, feuding on the board, death threats, robbery, gunfire, bashing, missing books, and a severed goat’s head left outside someone’s front door, a traditional Mafia warning.

Says Ms Arena: “For too many years there has been a code of silence at the Apia Club like the Mafia ‘omerta’. People were intimidated against speaking out. But now they are angry; millions of dollars of their money has been lost and the community is demanding justice.”

The club’s decline appears to have begun before Tony Boniciolli was appointed secretary/manager in 1985, the first of three occasions in the past decade that he has been Apia’s chief executive. He discovered the club had racked up debts of $1.25 million, and was losing $10,000 a week.

One of the main causes, he says, was theft, which continues to plague the club. “The money was coming in, but it was leaking out through holes. Some of the barmen were taking money, the attendants were taking it by the handful from the poker machines, even the patrons,” he pulls a blank metal token the size of a dollar coin from a desk drawer. “They were using things like this to cheat the machines.”

And it was not, says Boniciolli, only penny-ante pilfering. One former employee used to regularly attend the Harold Park trots on Friday night, lose $5,000, then come to work early at the weekend to make up his losses by making false records of the vital poker-machine takings – in a bit over a year $140,000 went.

Among the records which have disappeared over the years were those detailing the club’s employees. Boniciolli believes this is no accident. He suspects there were “phantom” people on the payroll, non-existent employees whose wages were pocketed by someone.

The police did take action on one occasion, trapping an employee with marked banknotes, but because of a bungle the case was dismissed. The club could not afford the $100,000 it would cost to mount surveillance cameras. Seventeen of the 60-odd staff were persuaded to resign, and the club began to turn a profit, but Boniciolli still wasn’t happy and eventually left.

Then there was the cuisine. Once Apia was famous for its food. Frank Moio of Double Bay’s renowned Botticelli restaurant used to preside over the spaghetti alle vongole, the baked eggplant and rolled veal “birds”. But not any longer, as the Mother’s Day nightmare showed.

One catering manager had never worked in the industry before. Another was so ignorant of Italian cooking he refused to salt the water for the pasta. It reached the stage that Tony Boniciolli wouldn’t even eat in his own club and took to hiding in a corner of a neighbourhood trattoria for his lunch.

Other things went mysteriously bump in the night. A huge chandelier – so heavy it required a crane to install it – vanished without trace. Insurance paid for a badly needed new dance floor after a fire in the auditorium, although police and fire brigade officials were never able to work out how the fire started in an amplifier that was not connected to the power at the time.

And as the punters deserted in their droves, the club began to lose money big-time. The Mother’s Day fiasco alone cost $15,000 when the disgusted diners had to be invited back for a free meal to make up for the inedible lunch. Another $12,000 a week went down the drain when a popular disco was cancelled. Tens of thousands more were lost when rent on the catering concession had to be forgone and contracts were broken.

Throughout the 1980s the losses mounted. John Mann, of the accountants William Buck, who was eventually brought in as administrator to try to save the club, concedes that theft and bad decisions on catering and entertainment played a part in the club’s decline. But, he says, “The major problem was dwindling membership and lack of patronage, which means less money through the pokermachines, which are the lifeblood of any club.” By last week, membership had plummeted to 2,800, barely a quarter the number of 20 years ago.

Mr Mann, who next Friday calls the creditors together to decide the fate of the club, said: “I am not very hopeful. All they have been doing for some time now is treading water; in fact, the situation is deteriorating. I think the club has had its day. In the 1950s and ’60s it was a fantastic meeting place for them, but now the Italians have assimilated into the Australian culture. The club does not have a role any more.”

A few brave souls did try to blow the whistle, but by then it was a minute to midnight. Journalist Guido Cicinelli was one. He exposed a number of scandals in his newspaper L’Opinione, and for his trouble was attacked outside the club by two men armed with an iron bar who fractured his knee and his thumb.

Nic Papallo, a solicitor who for 12 years was the club president, had his house and car in Dover Heights raked with gunfire from an M1 carbine one night, although he denies the attack had anything to do with the club. Leandro Gambotto, then the deputy mayor of Hunters Hill, who had queried club accounts and planned to stand for election to the board, changed his mind when he discovered a severed goat’s head in a sack on his front path.

Tony Spagnolo, a long-time employee of the club and long-time critic, ran unsuccessfully for election to the committee in 1989. He claimed there were irregularities, including the signing-up of 200 new members just days before the vote. The following year, in a fresh election supervised by the Electoral Commission, Spagnolo and a raft of “new broom” directors were elected to try to salvage the club.

When they examined the books, the new directors discovered the debt had blown out to more than $4 million, and the club was heading for a $1 million operating loss. Bankruptcy was staring them in the face unless the debt could be refinanced – and no bank was willing to lend the Apia Club another cent.

Eventually, a lender of last resort was found. The Monte dei Paschi (“mountain of pastures”) is a 500-year-old trust bank based in Sienna, which was planning to become the first Italian bank to open a branch network in Australia. Helping out one of Australia’s oldest Italian clubs would be a useful goodwill-builder, and the bank agreed to stump up $4.8 million against the security of the club’s freehold.

Almost from the start, however, the club began defaulting on its repayments – it was running at a loss, needed another $1 million to rebuild and refurbish its rundown premises, and had no money to pay off the mortgage. This week, with its debt ballooned to more than $7 million, the Monte dei Paschi finally ran out of patience.

“We recognise the importance of the club to the Italian community here,” said the new managing director, Giorgio Guano, sent to Australia a year ago to shut down the bank’s fledgling branch network and write off bad debts rumoured to total tens of millions of dollars.

“We have done more than most to keep the club afloat, but we must protect the interests of our shareholders. The club is in a very serious situation. It cannot stand up and is not even capable of meeting its day-to-day obligations.”

There were other debts, too. The bank had lent another $500,000 or so to three directors to pay for improvements to the clubhouse, and is now suing to recover the money. They intend to fight the case. One of the three, a builder named Ron Orsati, who was the club’s last president, lost his business and was driven into bankruptcy.

There is also something of a mystery surrounding another $600,000 or so, raised in debentures from the club’s members, who now seem unlikely to be repaid.

Mr Mann, the administrator, says: “Some of them (the amounts) were a bit questionable – they were for jobs done or work performed. The records are a bit hazy.”

The bank’s decision has triggered an extraordinary outbreak of recriminations, accusations and legal action. Almost everyone interviewed for this article has had his life threatened. There are at least six claims before the courts seeking the recovery of money – including $17,000 said to be missing from a trust account – and damages for defamation. Trade creditors are clamouring for another $350,000.

A new professional manager was brought in late last year who spruced up the premises, but failed to endear himself to the members when he asked them to use English instead of Italian in their club. Tony Jeffcott departed after five months for the Rooty Hill RSL and says: “I am just happy to be working now in a place where things are done professionally. I can’t believe this can be happening (the Apia Club going broke) at a time when clubland is going through the biggest boom of all time.”

A series of desperation measures in recent months did nothing to reverse the club’s terminal decline. The club gave away wine, prizes and money for the poker machines, says John Szetu, who was Apia’s last finance manager. “Petty cash” used to wine and dine patrons went up to $5,000 a week.

“We were giving away bottles of champagne meals – you name it – but nothing worked. In the end, the club went on a spending spree we couldn’t afford and the losses just kept accelerating.”

In December, normally the club’s most profitable month, the losses hit a record $62,000, and it was obvious to John Mann that the end was in sight.

And now the questions begin – questions about whether the authorities, the police and the Liquor Administration Board, all of whom were well aware of the problems, should have done more to probe the club. APIA has been frequently prosecuted for breaches of the Licensing Act – offences such as under-age drinking and disturbing the peace – but more serious allegations of misconduct have resulted in no action.

Spagnolo was particularly tenacious. He spent $25,000 on legal fees and wrote to everyone from then-premier Nick Greiner to the police, newspapers, and the Corporate Affairs Commission, as well as the Liquor Administration Board, the industry watchdog which, he says, has a fat file on the club. Nothing happened.

No doubt spurred into action by Franca Arena – who telephoned his office and has threatened to call for a full-scale investigation in Parliament – the Minister for Gaming and Racing, Mr Richard Face, sent an investigator to the club last week. A spokesman for the minister said the club’s finances were now being investigated to see whether there were grounds for prosecution, but he had no idea why previous complaints had not been acted on.

As the countdown continued towards next Friday’s creditors’ meeting, there seemed little hope that the APIA Club could be saved. The vultures began to gather.

Sky TV arrived to cut off the racing channel, one of the club’s few money-spinners, because the fee had not been paid since November. Mr Mann’s men came to count the chairs and the cutlery, the only hope the creditors have of getting a few cents in the dollar.

The only consolation is that the club has a new chef and the food in the downstairs bistro – four varieties of pasta, a rolled roast of veal, whitebait fritters were among the offerings – is now both cheap and tasty, if a sampling last week is anything to go by.

Unfortunately, there was hardly anyone there to enjoy it. After that Mother’s Day disaster, most people never came back. Sydney’s inner-west Italian community is now, in a final irony, more likely to be found drinking, dining and playing the poker-machines with their World War II enemies at the Five Dock RSL than at the club their friends and fathers founded 40 years ago.

Disgusted of …

The following are extracted from letters sent to the club after last year’s Mother’s Day lunch.

It was a nightmare, the worst Mother’s Day outing of my 21 years as a mother. – A. P.

Our entrees were average, the main meals – the best way to describe them was rubbish … We could have got a better meal in a pub for a counter lunch. – B. M.

The meat wouldn’t be fit for a dog and the chips were cold. How could you expect a child to eat this rubbish. The panettone was left in the pool room with flies all over it. – A. T.

We were informed that the meals would be served at 12.30 pm – the entree did not arrive until 2.15 pm and the main course not until 3.15 pm – but the chicken was blood red, the pork underdone, the pasta cold and the potatoes hard as rocks. – D. P.

What we thought was going to be a wonderful day turned into a disaster. The service and the meal were disgusting. It was our first meal at the Apia and certainly our last. I would never have expected a club with your years of service and experience to serve meals of this nature. – L. T.

The children’s food was disgusting. The meat was like compressed dog food and the chips greased in oil. – J. M.

There was a tray of tripe that looked like it was cooked about a week ago and the pasta was horrible. The rest of the dishes did not look appetising. I paid $101.50 and none of us were happy with the meal and left the club to go and have pizza. – S. M.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Saturday 2 March 1996
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 27
Word count: 2334
Classification: Lifestyle/Clubs
Geographic area: Sydney
Photographs: Glenn Shipley
1. Food fight … The Apia Club’s dining area where the Mother’s Day lunch was held
2. Manager Tony Boniciolli, “The money was coming in, but it was leaking out through holes”
3. The pool room … one writer alleges the pannetone was left here – with the flies
Comments: “Disgusted of” … joined to story.