In 1957 the BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast a three-minute film on April Fool’s Day showing a family harvesting spaghetti from trees. The fact that the joke worked showed that, for many Brits, real Italian food was still something of a mystery.
But the times they were a-changing, and from the 60s onwards trattoria and restaurants began opening in Britain. “It was Britalian," says legendary Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo. "Italian restaurants had a certain image here, all mandolins and Casanovas serenading."
All this was in a marked contrast to back home: "Eating in Italy is a serious business, a ceremony. And what are we talking about at the table? The food."
Here’s a list of what makes a classic trattoria from Alasdair Scott Sutherland's book The Spaghetti Tree, a history of Italian restaurants in the UK:
- Wife in kitchen, husband behind bar, daughter serving tables
- Door to kitchen open and communication done by shouting
- Large open glass counter or chill cabinet with Antipasti and pre-prepared dishes, also fresh fish to select
- Large dresser behind the bar with local wines and other products
- Wine served in caraffini
- TV in corner always on, usually showing football or a soap opera
- Photographs of family on the walls
- One large original painting, usually of questionable talent and often in questionable taste, possibly donated by a customer in lieu of payment
- Two shirtless men in vests drinking coffee
- Three men in dark suits in the corner
Today in the UK the straw-wrapped Chianti bottles and checked tableclothes have mostly disappeared. “Today in England we now cook fantastic Italian food, and people know how to eat,” he tells me. And so Gennaro has teamed up with Bertolli to find the best trattoria or deli in the UK today. By voting for your favourite you’ll be entered in a prize draw to win a week’s holiday in Italy, molto bene!