My life’s journey through the restaurants of Little Italy

My life’s journey through the restaurants of Little Italy

When I first moved to London from a provincial art college, I lived in a squat and worked in a photographer’s studio in Clerkenwell. Because the possibility of eating at “home” was even more depressing than it was unhygienic, I took the bus through Soho each night and ate at the Pollo, a steamed-up Formica canteen that had been serving the same pasta-heavy menu since some time in the 1960s. After dinner, it was possible to nip round to Bar Italia for the espresso that injected the only glamour. Today, from that Soho corner, I can still see most of the really significant restaurants in my life.

In later years, I could afford a date in Pizza­Express to begin with and later in Kettner’s, which served the same menu. When I finally got real jobs, I hung out with the admen in Little Italy and later Quo Vadis. Like many of my generation, I grew up half in love with “Italian” and never really questioned what that meant.

Near the photographer’s studio in Clerkenwell was St Peter’s church, built in 1863 to serve a growing Italian community. London had always attracted musicians, painters, stonemasons and other craftspeople from Rome, Venice and Naples. But the wave of immigration that created London’s little Italy, the same as the ones in New York, San Francisco and other metropolises across the world, were composed of people fleeing the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy. The immigrants came from pre-unification Italy, from the Two Sicilies, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Papal States.

These first arrivals could not have had any knowledge of Italian cooking because no such thing yet existed. So atomised were the cultures of the peninsula and its islands, that Pellegrino Artusi, an enthusiast for unification, forged together the first book of “Italian” cuisine, La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), as a piece of social engineering, believing that a shared love of food might draw “Italians” closer together. It was published in 1891, 20 years after successful unification.

But London’s new Italians, like many diasporas since, discovered that food and drink, catering, street food and restaurant work were the easiest way to gain a foothold in a new country. In the 1880s, censuses showed that about half the men living in little Italy were ice cream sellers. Many of the others were rising quickly in the restaurant trade as waiters, cooks and maître d’s.

Alasdair Scott Sutherland’s 2009 book The Spaghetti Tree is an excellent history of the way Italian restaurant workers finally set out on their own in the 1950s and ’60s in the espresso and trattoria “booms”. Creating an entirely new model of relaxed, democratic public eating that leaned heavily on the semiotics of their cultural roots, while serving spaghetti Bolognese, fettuccine Alfredo and quattro stagioni pizzas.

These dishes were unknown in Italy, but developed to please their British audience. The network of independent trattorias and pizzerias that spread across the UK gave many towns their first “restaurant” and, for many of us, our first experience of dining out. (“Italian-American” food took a slightly different but no less idiosyncratic route, and we would find the menu in a traditional “red sauce Italian” in Brooklyn today markedly different from a family-run trattoria in London.)

Once travel to Italy became easy and popular, a separate genetic strand developed in England. Restaurants like the River Café and the many it spawned were not run by Italians but inspired by a very specific romantic ideal. Perhaps as much “Italophile” as “Italian”. This strand continued to develop, popular and widely feted, but parallel to the Italian-run restaurants rather cruelly characterised as the “check-tablecloth” tradition.

It is undeniable that Italian food in the UK has become a quiet and comprehensive success. But it’s also possible that it has written its own obituary. Family restaurants grown with sweat equity were popular and financially successful. They achieved their objectives, creating wealth and social acceptance. The result is a generation of children that has moved on from the industry; children who grew up with different aspirations from their parents.

The food too. That strangely evolved and integrated menu of lasagnas, pepperoni pizzas and breadsticks is now so seamlessly embedded in our expectations that it’s already entering the next round of reinvention. Large UK restaurant chains, the Bella Italias and Zizzis, have turned our accepted preconception of the “Italian restaurant” into a scalable “concept”, working to keep it relevant and contemporary, while others, like the Instagrammable gastro-experiences of the Big Mamma group, succeed by dancing dangerously close to parody.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing another slew of “new-Italian” launches. Spectacular fresh pasta with sauces honouring local and seasonal ingredients is a real growth area, though fresh pasta isn’t hugely common in Italy. Or top quality artisanal sourdough pizzas, but with agonisingly hip toppings that would provoke violent retribution back in Naples. In truth, the starting point of this latest iteration is not “Italian” food in any traditional sense, but what Italian food became when it arrived in Britain. Any sense of authenticity is as hotly argued as it is entirely moot.

The Italians I can see from my Soho corner: the old geezers behind the espresso machine at Pollo; the Polledris who opened Bar Italia and Little Italy; Peppino Leoni, founder of Quo Vadis; and Peter Boizot, who started PizzaExpress. And those further in the distance: Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of River Café; Antonio Carluccio; the family who ran the trattoria in your hometown; Gennaro Contaldo; even Jamie Oliver. They are all part of a story of immigration and integration, flexibility and adaptation, cross-cultural respect and, sometimes, lack of it. Without the Italians being present for us at precisely the right time, what on earth would our food culture look like now?

Americans are increasingly proud of an “Italian-American” tradition that’s effectively sui generis. Perhaps it’s time for us to recognise and embrace “Italian-British”, to appreciate what grew here and formed us, before it quietly disappears.

Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and on Instagram @timhayward

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