If you’ve spent a fair amount of time in any City, you will know that of their nature they tend to be impersonnel and people can, if they chose to, be almost completely anonymous. The reliable element that most Cities share in common are their cafes and restaurants that may have been open for many years, thus avoiding fashion but are hugely welcoming.
A model example of one of these refuges is “Bar Italia” founded by the Polledri family from Piacenza (Italy) and which is still owned by Veronica and Anthony Polledri.
The current owner’s grandparent, Lou and Caterina Polledri, arrived in London in the 1920’s and within a decade had a flourishing cafe in Covent Garden, whose clientele tended to be from the fruit and vedge market that was there until it relocated in the 1974 to Nine Elms, south of Vauxhall Bridge.
After a period of wartime internment, Lou and Caterina opened the iconic Bar Italia in late 1949 having fitted out the small cafe using specialist Italian tradesmen, including Torino Polledri who laid the still present terrazzo floor – which is showing early signs of age.
Housed at 22 Frith Street (Soho, London) Bar Italia is not the only claim to fame of this pretty building, as attested to by the blue plaque to the right above the entrance door, on 26th January 1926 John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of the newly developed “television”.
The bar is not grand or particularly comfy with low stools in chrome and dark red, the walls and bar are clad in a wood effect Formica and the ceiling is white artex. The Rocky Marciano poster, hanging football and rugby shirts and the strung panettone boxes mean you couldn’t question the bar’s heritage. Yet this is the real thing. The waiters – who mainly seem to be Italian – are sufficiently truculent to be charming clad in black waistcoats and serving those who chose to stay in or take away.
The ever present flatscreen TV showing Champions League football from an Italian channel – with a studio discussion taking several minutes of over serious deliberation of the featured teams tactics – is the dominant sound above a blend of many other tongues, particularly Italian.
But the coffee in Bar Italia is particularly special, it’s not served in enormous jugs, it doesn’t contain a caramel shot or a gallons of foaming milk but the espresso or macchiato that emerges from the hand pulled Gaggia coffee machine transports you to a time before the upstart neighbouring coffee shops existed. Served in small white cups and saucers it’s splendid. Bar Italia now offer a bag of their own blend for you to take away.
The antiquated copper-sided mechanical NCR cash register clacks into action recording your payment.
In years to come some bright designer will suggest that Bar Italia should update its interior – I am not sure that anyone is ready for that. It’s customers like Bar Italia it just the way it is!