Alvaro Maccioni: Chef and owner of La Famiglia restaurant who helped transform eating out in postwar Britain
Wednesday 04 December 2013
Alvaro Maccioni's Italian restaurant, just off King's Road in the World's End district of London, was aptly named La Famiglia. Maccioni treated everyone who walked through its doors as family, whether their name was Sinatra, Princess Grace, Princess Margaret, Bardot, Liz Taylor, Michael Caine, Peter Sellers, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Jagger, Clegg, Clapton or Kylie. Or whether they were the local taxi driver, a working class family with children splurging on a birthday (children were always welcome) or a peckish Chelsea football manager after a hard day at nearby Stamford Bridge.
La Famiglia is Jose Mourinho's favourite London haunt, but when he walked through that blue door into the blue-and-white-tiled dining room, or on to its heated and canopied terrace, he was no longer The Special One. To Alvaro Maccioni, everyone was special. The fact that the photographs on the walls were all of his own family, rather than his "other family" – the famous customers – said it all.
Maccioni became an historic figure in Italian cuisine, or cucina, in the UK. Having arrived as a waiter in 1957 aged 20 he was one of a handful of Italian immigrant waiters who changed the face of eating out in London and the UK. Working with former fellow waiters Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla, Maccioni saw their La Terrazza trattoria on Romilly Street, Soho – "The Tratt" – become a magnet for the movers and shakers of the Swinging Sixties, from the Beatles to vibrant London advertising creatives and photographers such as David Bailey. Whereas the Beatles and Stones and Mary Quant's mini-skirts made the headlines, the Italian food revolution was an integral part of the decade.
Postwar Londoners became used to whispering while eating out – at the time still a guilty treat for most after rationing. Then young Italian waiters and chefs like Maccioni opened their own trattorie – where, because the waiters shouted, customers felt they could raise their voices too, even talk to the folks at the next table. It was nothing less than a revolution in British social culture. Brits had been used to spaghetti in a tin but Maccioni and his peers made their own fresh pasta and became known as the UK's pasta pioneers. Maccioni recalled getting a call from the Oxford English Dictionary, saying they were including the word "pasta" and could he help them define it.
In 1957, two years before La Terrazza opened, Panorama broadcast a piece about "the annual Italian spaghetti harvest", with images of workers plucking strands of spaghetti from trees. It was an April Fool's joke but a huge number of viewers called in to ask where they could get this "fresh" product. It is hard to believe now but, shortly before La Terrazza opened, many Brits considered Italian, Indian or Chinese food "foreign muck."
Once he had broken away to launch La Famiglia in 1975, Maccioni brought the first authentic Tuscan cuisine to London. He set up at 7 Langton Street, just off the King's Road, a site now unmistakable for its blue and white facade. Even into his seventies, Maccioni's 500cc Piaggio scooter could be seen parked on the pavement alongside his daughter's Vespa. He rode it until shortly before he died. Earlier this year, Mick Jagger and deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg were photographed leaving the restaurant. Mick went on to play the live Hyde Park Concert two nights later. Whether Mick was pushing for a political candidacy, or Nick was putting himself up for Charlie Watts' drumming job if he ever retires, we may never know. Alvaro Maccioni never told the media about anything that went on inside his walls, though he could probably have made a fortune from the tabloids.
Instead, he stuck with his original intention in coming to the UK, to give his family enough to survive, or hopefully more. "In a sense, he came from nothing and did not want his children to have nothing," his daughter Marietta, who will now run La Famiglia, told The Independent. She said that when her father first came to London he needed olive oil but could only find it in a chemist's shop in Chelsea, where it was billed as good for digestion or "blocked bowels". He began importing it from Pietro in the Tuscan hills, close to where he was born, and later other ingredients he couldn't find in the UK, to recreate the food he had been fed by his mother and grandmother.
By the time La Famiglia was up and running every ingredient not available in England was imported from family in Tuscany. His mantra was "fresh seasonal produce – 'fresco, fresco, fresco'" – and to this day other prominent Italian chefs in the UK rely on his imported fresh produce. "I say to my chefs that if you can cook like your mother then you are a good chef, but if you can cook like your grandmother then you are a great chef," he once said.
Alvaro Maccioni was born in Porciano, near Vinci in Tuscany in 1937, the son of a smallholding farmer, Alessandro Maccioni, who fought in the resistance against Mussolini and became a fresh food wholesaler. Alvaro, whose mother was Marietta Nardini, went to school in nearby Lamporecchio before deciding he could be a hotelier. After training in Viareggio and Lausanne he worked as head waiter at hotels including the Excelsior in Florence and the Grande Hotel & La Pace in Montecatini, where he first waited on Princess Grace of Monaco.
In 1958, having emigrated to England, "he spent half of his last 10 bob note to get a taxi to the Mirabelle hotel and apply for a job as a waiter," according to his daughter. There he met compatriots Cassandro and Lagattolla and they later combined at La Terrazza. "Mario, Franco and Alvaro were to food what Gianni Agnelli was to cars and Sophia Loren was to glamour," one food critic wrote.
Maccioni left to open his own restaurant, Alvaro, on the King's Road, of which London Life wrote: "The name Alvaro is whispered from the studios of showbiz to the courts of royalty." He then opened a nightclub, Dell' Aretusa, in the 1960s and had a restaurant chain, Alvaro Pizza e Pasta, possibly the first to use wood-burning ovens. In 1975 he downsized to open La Famiglia, where he spent the rest of his life. He is survived by his wife Letizia, sons Alfonso and Alessandro, daughter Marietta and seven grandchildren.
Alvaro Maccioni, chef and restaurateur; born Porciano, Italy 3 June 1937; married Letizia Scaglia (two sons, one daughter): died London 22 November 2013.
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