Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Old school Italians...

The old school Italian restaurant, they not as numerous as they once were but it doesn’t take too long to find one. Often they now look a little forlorn, but we shouldn’t forget the pioneering role these outposts of Italian culture played in shaping the restaurant scene of today.

There have been Italian restaurants in London since 1803, when Joseph Moretti opened the Italian Eating House near Leicester Sqare, his was a response to the growing Italian community based around Clarkenwell and Holborn, a collection of political emigres, and craftsmen.

In the century that followed the community grew steadily with the addition of a large group of merchant seamen. The Italian restaurant community also grew with hotels and eating houses being opened, mostly around Leicester Square, though by now Clerkenwell was known as little Italy and was a centre for skilled glass and plaster working.

By 1901 there were 11000 Italians living in London and the modern age of the trattoria was just around the corner. At this point we also turn our gaze towards Soho, Dean street in particular. 45 Dean street (now the Groucho club) had been a restaurant since 1880, but it was Gennaro’s that made its name. Along with Leoni’s Quo Vadis further up the road Soho had become the centre of British Italian dining.

Outside of the rarified salons of Soho the post war years of the 50s to the 70s saw an explosion in Italian emigration. The poor southern half of the country struggled after the second world war and many people left. Emilio-Romagna in particular saw a large exodus to the British isles.

1955 saw what was perhaps the most iconic of London Italian openings, with the first Spaghetti house offering Anglicised versions of Italian favourites. Just like the growth of curry houses across the land the Italian trattorias offered Spaghetti Bolognese and creamy Carbonarras. Wine was wicker basketed and the patrons would charm the ladies with roses and allusions to exotic mediterranean wonders. But let’s remember that for most people in Britain at that time wine was still exotic and unknown. Indeed I remember my father telling me of his Aunt coming back from Italy with the first bottle of wine he’d ever seen.

So the trattorias spread across the country, bringing affordable dining to towns and cities where before there’d been none. I’m certain that there are many whose first restaurant experiences were just that.

So anyway, now we’re blessed with regional specific Italians, modern British interpretations of Italian, and the wonderful legacy of the River Cafe, let’s raise a glass of Chianti to those pioneers and remember what made them great.