A PROMINENT Freo fishing family is facing a mystery ahead of moving its seafood headquarters back to the port city this week.
The Mendolia family were part of the great Italian migration to Fremantle in the 1950s, but earned lasting fame for convincing Aussies that sardines deserved to be on the dinner table rather than just in the bait bucket.
For years matriarch Rosa Mendolia sold hand-filleted sardines from the back yard of their Suffolk Street property, and although the operation was moved to Myaree when business boomed, the old sign out the front — Fresh Fish, Mendolia Seafood — remained.
But over the weekend it disappeared.
What adds a little spice to the mystery is that the family were already planning to move it this week to go into a new factory that’s been built in O’Connor.
Jim Mendolia, one of Rosa’s three sons who now run the company, says they’d been wondering how to get the sign off.
“It was going to go in our new office; we were going to frame it and all, but somebody beat us to it,” says Jim.
“It was really screwed on,” agrees brother Aldo.
“Whoever took it really wanted it.”
Despite the theft, the brothers are still beaming with excitement over their big move.
“A friend of ours, Nat Tadei, loves our sardines so much he and his family have decided to back us and built us a brand new factory in O’Connor,” says Jim.
“He’s going to join us as a business partner, and in the new place we are diversifying into other products.
“We are doing Australian Wild Salmon which is a low-value fish. In the old days it was canned for pet food and lobster bait, but we are going to bring it back. We are doing local tuna as well.”
The Mendolia family have long challenged perceptions about eating fish.
“We were the first ones to teach people how to eat sardines,” Jim says proudly.
“They used to call them mulies, which is bait.”
Their father Francolino didn’t like seeing sardines going to waste, so the Mendolia family would eat them, but Jim says filleting the little fish was an onerous chore for Rosa.
“I thought surely there’s a machine. I saw an add for herring fillet machines and this Danish guy brought one over and in two weeks he was able to convert the herring machine to do small sardines. It was doing 100 fish a minute.”
The family held the first Sardine Festival in 1990 to convince Freo that sardines are tasty.
“We got a group of friends and volunteers, and we gave thousands of tastings of sardines. We did it a second year and a camera crew came and suddenly sardines were vogue.”
Pretty soon sardines were appearing on the menu of the trendiest restaurants throughout the country.
If you have any information regarding the lost sign, please contact Aldo on 0417 911 028.
by MOLLY SCHMIDT