A celebration of the daily grind: Bar Italia marks its 60th anniversary
Ian Burrell discovers how the iconic Soho café has stayed true to its heritage as it transformed from a social centre for immigrants into a celebrity favourite – and why it'll never reveal its secret coffee blend
Sunday 26 July 2009
The street was always like a scene out of A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas," recalls Antonio "Antony" Polledri of his earliest visits as a boy of six to Bar Italia, the family business he would inherit and which has become the most iconic café in Britain. "The Maltese used to stand around outside in their string vests and the street life was so vibrant. The whole of Soho was sex shops – every second shop. You'd see people sitting on the pavement, waiting to do business, any kind of business, and everybody had a nickname – there was Russian Bill, French Lou, Maltese Joe, Joe the Crow..."
It was the early 1970s and the young Antony, along with his younger brother Luigi, would be taken down to the café by their father, Nino, to be immersed in the culture and traditions of Italian London. The air was thick with the smoke of Toscano cigars, cut in half and shared by the waiters, Italian butchers and tailors who would congregate to sip the espresso that spluttered from the giant Gaggia coffee machine. They leant on Formica fittings of red and white, stood on the polished terrazzo floor, and talked of the job market, football and news from their families back home.
Most of all they came to drink coffee, imported from Italy by Omero "Andy" Angelucci, who ran the shop next door and who has supplied Bar Italia since it opened in 1949. "It's a secret blend that only we use in Bar Italia and, you are not going to believe this, but I don't even know what coffee he gives us," says Antony, now 44. "I have been offered deals with big Italian coffee chains; they're willing to do up the bar for me, give me free stock, give me a new coffee machine, they'd do anything to get a spot in Bar Italia. But while Mr Angelucci is alive, I have a sense of loyalty and I'm not considering changing."
The reason the big companies want a piece of Bar Italia is that the café long ago ceased to be just the "social centre" for Italians that Antony's grandparents, Luigi and Caterina, established after the Second World War. It has since become a beacon for the style-conscious; an unrivalled vantage point from which to observe the street culture of London's most bohemian neighbourhood. As the writer Paolo Hewitt puts it: "There's nothing better than sitting outside the Italia early morning, creamy cappuccino to hand, watching Soho wash away its sins from the night before and waiting excitedly for the whole world to pass by your table."
It became the favoured haunt of 1980s trendsetters the "Buffalo" crew: musician Neneh Cherry, model Nick Kamen, designer Ray Petri and singer Sade (who shot the publicity photographs for "Smooth Operator" there). David Bowie and Harvey Keitel are among its A-list clientele and Kylie Minogue comes by for a caffè latte whenever she is in town.
In truth, Bar Italia has been associated with the stars from its earliest days, when Luigi and Caterina persuaded Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to ride bicycles down Frith Street to publicise the newly founded establishment. In another stunt, they offered a baby Gaggia as a prize to whoever could consume the most coffee. "Today, that would be an outrageous thing to try," admits Antony as he describes this moment from Polledri folklore. "The machine was won by a little old lady, who put it under her arm and walked off with it."
The Polledris arrived in Britain from Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna in 1920. Caterina had broken her journey in Paris, where she earned a living from soldering tin cans. In London, the couple set up a business in Covent Garden, opening "a workmen's caff – not a café, a caff – to service the porters at the market". The switch to Frith Street 60 years ago created a landmark that defines Soho as much as such institutions as the French House pub, the 19th-century patisserie Maison Bertaux and Kettner's restaurant, which opened in 1867.
Luigi Polledri Sr had spent part of the war interned on the Isle of Man in a camp called "the Palace", and that difficult period in the history of Britain's Italian community is reflected in a framed photograph on the wall of Bar Italia, showing Italian signs being taken down from Soho businesses by owners fearful of reprisals. "It wasn't just a café, it was a social centre, as the Italians weren't completely integrated," says Antony. "It was a place where waiters who did split-shifts would go. After their first shift finished at 3pm, where could they go?"
But the most striking feature of Bar Italia for the past 40 years has undoubtedly been a giant poster of the great boxer Rocky Marciano in a T-shirt with his dukes up, ready to set about a punchball. The image, which hangs behind the counter, was a gift to Nino (who took over the business in the 1960s) from the fighter's wife, Barbara, after Rocky was killed in a plane crash in 1969. "It was a thank you to my father for taking such good care of him while he was in London," says Antony. "My father befriended Rocky, who wanted to eat proper Italian food, not from restaurants or hotels. So my grandmother, Caterina, cooked him his favourite food, which was risotto, followed by polenta, and he had some of our home-made wine."
The Rocky picture has left Bar Italia only once, when the café was depicted in the 1986 Julien Temple film Absolute Beginners, based on the Colin MacInnes novel about 1950s London. "I played a part with my brother Luigi; we were making coffee in Bar Italia. They managed to replicate the whole of Soho in a film studio in Shepperton," says Antony of the movie, which starred Patsy Kensit. "The only thing they couldn't replicate was the picture of Rocky Marciano, so they borrowed it and that's the only time it has left Bar Italia since 1969. It was a scene where we were all dancing in the streets."
When Francis Ford Coppola later came to Bar Italia, he and Anthony did not discuss cinema careers, but food and coffee. Coppola's mother's maiden name is Italia, and the director requested some Bar Italia coffee cups to take her as a present. "As a way of thanking me, he said he would bring me back a bottle of wine from his vineyards. Three weeks later, true to his word, he came back, offered me a bottle of wine and told me to drink it with my family, which I did – it was fantastic."
The Polledris' own wine-making traditions are equally precious. "We get grapes sent from Italy every year and we still make it the old-fashioned way, by treading on them. It's a tradition we have kept for four generations. We do it at my father's house in Mill Hill [in north London]. We don't sell it; it's personal. It's part of our heritage."
Heritage is all-important at Bar Italia, too. Antony and Luigi, 43, may have improved ventilation at the once smoky café, but the rest of their changes have been minimal, giving it an authenticity that draws all those who love Italian style. "I love that they haven't modernised it, so you can feel the history as you sit down at the Formica bench and walk on the tiled floor," says Mark Baxter, a veteran of the Mod scene. "The guys behind the counter, Dinny and Luca, always greet me with a cheery 'How you doing?' as they pour me my cappuccino." A Bar Italia scooter club meets at the café ahead of Bank Holiday runs down to the coast. Groups of superbike and Harley-Davidson riders have also designated it as their base.
But more than anything, it is known as a magnet for followers of the Azzurri, the Italian national football team. "It's where any second- or third-generation Italian wants to be when Italy is playing football, and the highlights of my 27 years running Bar Italia have been seeing Italy win the World Cup," says Antony. "For the 1982 final we didn't have the large screen, we had a television. And unfortunately, halfway through the game, because of the heat and condensation and lack of ventilation, it broke down. I swear to God that all the Italians started screaming at me like I'd switched it off. Thankfully a TV was found next door and we plugged in the aerial and they flooded back. After the game there was a parade of Fiats and Lancias and people with flags sitting on the car roofs, parading around Frith Street and Soho."
When Italy repeated the feat in 2006, Bar Italia attracted an estimated 8,000 people to Soho. "We had a party upstairs in our Little Italy restaurant next door to Bar Italia and threw all the pasta out the window like confetti. It was hilarious. The chef came in the next day and there was nothing left."
These days the café is run mostly by Antony and Luigi's sister, Veronica, 39. Antony says the English clientele have become as knowledgeable about coffee as Italians and are unlikely to make such a faux pas as to ask for a cappuccino at dinner time, tempting though that might be. According to the coffee expert Louie Salvoni, Bar Italia's cappuccino is the finest in London, combining one-third espresso (Mr Angelucci's secret blend), one-third milk (not too hot), and one-third foam, and served in a curved Bar Italia china cup, so the coffee rises to the surface as the drink is brought to the lips.
And that ancient Gaggia machine is still giving loyal service. "We don't put water softener on it, so it needs constant maintenance," complains Antony. "The limescale that builds inside the boiler needs chiselling away every six months, which takes three or four hours, so we try to do it during the night."
Aside from the Gaggia, the Rocky picture and the Italian tricolore hanging from the ceiling, Bar Italia is known for its clock, mounted outside the café and visible from the end of the street. "It only tells the time correctly twice a day. We should get it fixed for the 60th anniversary," says Antony, who hopes to produce some Paul Smith-designed commemorative clothing and stage a street festival to mark the date.
For all his nostalgia, Antony Polledri is fearful for the future. He regrets that the Italian presence in Soho is on the wane – "there's a bigger Italian community in Bedford now" – and worries that traditional concerns such as Bar Italia may not be able to withstand competition from bigger rivals. Yet it has not been driven out by the rise of those anonymous coffee chains yet – and no doubt its loyal customers will drink enough coffee to ensure it's still thriving in another 60 years' time.
An Italian's guide to coffee
By Louie Salvoni
If you ask for a 'caffè' in a bar in Italy, you would be given an espresso.
"Capucco" (cappuccino) is the breakfast drink – Italians can't understand why you would have a drink containing milk with food later in the day; it doesn't help your digestion. The perfect cappuccino is served in a cup no bigger than 6fl oz. A third would be coffee, a third steamed milk and a third silky-smooth foamed milk. You then drink the black coffee through the steamed and foamed milk.
If you ask for a 'latte' in an Italian coffee bar, you will be given a glass of milk. In the UK, we have had the American influence of chains such as Starbucks, and what's happening now is all about perception of value, so all these chains are giving big drinks – 12fl oz or16fl oz – which purport to be good value, but they are actually destroying the origins of the drink. There's too much milk in proportion to coffee.
The water hitting the coffee should be between 90C and 95C; you should never use boiling water to produce a coffee; using water at 100C would smash the flavours.
The shape of the cup is very important. If you have a square-shaped cup with a flat bottom and right angles, when the coffee hits, the crema [the nice golden brown foam on top of an espresso] is dispersed. What encourages the crema to rise to the top of the coffee is the cup shape. If it's curved-based, often with a nodule at the bottom, it encourages the cream to creep up the sides and on to the top of the coffee, which is where it should be.
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