One of Neville Pantazis’ earliest memories, is of being woken before dawn by the sound of a truck’s horn and a husky Mediterranean voice shouting his father’s name. “Paul! Paul!” Vince would holler, tearing the still, tropical morning.

Vince, of Italian descent, had loaded his truck full of watermelons at Adelaide River just hours before, and headed up the Stuart Highway to bring the sweetest, freshest karpouzia in the Northern Territory to Parap Fruit and Veg, Paul and Rene Pantazis’ shop that nestled in the central square of the historic Darwin suburb.

Parap has always attracted pioneers. It’s the site of Darwin’s first aerodrome and a location central to the story of northern Australia. The first ever flight between Europe and Australia touched down here in 1919; Australia’s great aviators followed in their slipstream.

Paul Pantazis arrived in Darwin by charter flight after the long journey from Cyprus in 1951, three years after the first Greek Cypriot migrants arrived in the Top End.

A few years later at the Rendezvous cafe, a loved institution in the rough and ready frontier town that was post-war Darwin, he met Irene Kanaris who had come north with her family from Perth just after the war.

Paul and Irene fell in love, and began a new chapter in the rich Hellenic story of Australia’s north. It was a marriage made in Darwin, and the beginning of a business and a fine food odyssey that continues to this day. Neville Pantazis, their first child, was born in 1959.

Today, Neville is the owner and driving force behind Parap Fine Foods, Darwin’s celebrated emporium for the best food products in the Top End. This delicatessen for discerning Darwinians grew from the fruit and vegetable business his parents created in 1968. It’s still very much the family business, and despite the kids’ suggestion that mum and dad might want to take a back seat, Paul and Rene still work in the shop.

When talking about his childhood in Darwin, food is a memory that burns brightly for Neville. “I remember the picnics at East Point where we’d make cubby houses in the old army buildings. Every Sunday there would be 10 to 15 Greek families at the beaches,” he says.

Fine food and fine art have always been two sides of the same coin for Neville. With a passion for the arts since high school, Parap Fine Foods would become as much a realisation of Neville’s artistic vision, as a retail vision; it would be the cataclysm of Cyclone Tracy and the subsequent journey to Greece immediately after, that would fuel Neville’s passion. The Pantazis family sat out the cyclone which flattened Darwin in December 1974, in the bathroom of their house close to the business. The shop survived intact. As Darwin p

icked up the pieces, like most retailers, foodstuffs were given away for free in the days that followed. “We took the year off after that. Dad leased the business,” says Neville. “It was an opportunity to take a break, so we spent six months in Cyprus and six in Greece.” For the first time Neville saw the wonders of ancient Greece and the Acropolis.

“For the first time in your life you get a sense of history,” he says.

The effect was life-changing. He enrolled at the Tasmanian School of Art where he completed a Bachelor in Fine Arts. He returned to Darwin keen to present art that excited and inspired him and began lecturing in art at what is now Charles Darwin University; all the while helping in the shop.

It was in 1985, when Neville walked into David Jones’ food hall in Sydney, that he became inspired by what he saw – in another form of artistic expression. “I just got smacked in the stomach,” says Neville. “I just thought ‘this is the best’. It was a different retailing world.”

The would-be gourmet grocer took the idea back to his parents in Parap who fully embraced the idea. After a period of transition the chrysalis that was Parap Fruit and Veg emerged into the light as Parap Fine Foods. As the shop developed, Neville pursued his twin passions.

The shopfront re-design incorporated a mini-gallery. As the business grew, Neville curated exhibitions, working with Darwin’s independent galleries to present indigenous art shows. Around the same time, with colleagues Nick Mitaros and Anna Lambouris, Neville became central to the creation of the first Darwin Glenti in 1989; a conscious effort to re-unite, what many second generation members of the Greek community saw, was a factional community, with Cypriots, Macedonians and Kalymnians rarely venturing beyond the boundaries of their own communities.

The Glenti allowed the curator in Neville to shine further. For the first time, Greek Australian artists headed to northern Australia as part of the Glenti’s wide program of events, with the likes of George Raftopoulos, Michael Zavros and Stelarc heading north to share and talk about their art. The Darwin Glenti evolved into one of the most vibrant incarnations of Hellenic celebration in Australia.

Parap Fine Foods has thrived; its reputation has grown year on year. Today it presents over 10,000 gourmet food lines to a Darwin population that has grown to love and cherish the store’s existence. If you’re in Darwin on a Saturday morning, it’s a great time to visit the Pantazis family business, when the taste of a spicy laksa from the weekly Asian market nearby, combines seamlessly with the refined continental delicacies of Parap Fine Foods’ busy counter.

The place in history of the Pantazis family was celebrated in 2008 with the publication of Forty Fine Years – a beautifully illustrated and lovingly researched and written book by Darwin historians Peter and Sheila Forrest. Three generations of the family greet the customers of Parap Fine Foods today. “Is there a secret to your success?” I ask Neville. “It’s about knowledge; the relationship that you build with your customers. Every time someone comes in you’re always laughing.”

With thanks to Peter and Sheila Forrest for the use of archive photographs and material from Forty Fine Years – A celebration of the Pantazis family and Parap Fine Foods. Published by Shady Tree 2008.