When it comes to Italian food, London's been caught up in a passionate love affair. From Sardinian to Milanese, the city has long embraced a gloriously diverse range of restaurants that tell the story of our most-loved cuisine. Established hitters such as the Michelin-starred Luca jostle alongside convivial pasta-joints like Lina Stores and Padella, whilst the Big Mamma Group is set to expand their stable of popular Italian-themed restaurants with a fourth site, Jacuzzi, opening in January 2023.
But whilst these shiny new openings thrive, there’s been a string of closures of the independent, neighbourhood restaurants that were very much part of London’s Italian food-fabric. Are we really losing our love for the traditional trattoria, or have we just been temporarily blinded by the bright lights of disco toilets and flower walls?
When London was first blessed with Italian food, it was an altogether simpler affair, beginning with the cafes and delis opened by migrating Italians in the early 1900s. Mostly concentrated in Clerkenwell, these humble establishments served up simple meat dishes, introduced the concept of pasta and sold exotic delicacies such as prosciutto and pecorino.
By the 1980s, London was fully infatuated. A clutch of restaurants cooking the cornerstones of Italian cuisine emerged – Ciao Bella, San Lorenzo – and the rest of the UK wasn’t far behind, with bustling trattorias popping up on intrigued high streets across the UK. My grandfather's was one such restaurant. Born in Ascoli Piceno, he moved to Essex in his 20s and opened The Spartacus, with traditional generous cooking served against a backdrop of large pepper grinders, live music, and laughter. Following the death of my grandfather, the restaurant closed in the early 80s, but it left an indelible mark on the area – Essex cabbies still speak of it with fondness today.
Places like this are where Brits learned how to have fun over a meal – where lunches turned into dinner and strangers into friends. A complimentary Grappa was never far away and simple, filling food was prepared with love – not the agenda of investors.
The French-owned Big Mamma group capitalised on the city’s fondness of these restaurants by creating souped-up, Technicolour versions of them in the form of Gloria and Ave Mario. The toilets offer the promise of a perfectly lit Hinge photo. The carbonara (a peasant dish) is served in a giant wheel of Parmesan and the lemon meringue pie is comically tall. Truffle and neon light installations are everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with this shameless celebration of abbodanza (meaning ‘abundance’) per se, but as London becomes awash with VC-backed uniformity, it appears the restaurants that paved their way are struggling.
Barnet's Ci Vediamo Li, Tufnell Park's Nuraghe and Clapham’s Donna Margherita are three such notable losses. These losses are devastating, as there is something so uniquely London about them. Charming and chaotic, they’re crucial parts of London communities. And in a time of two-hour dining slots and endless queuing, these restaurants provide a welcome contrast – a familiar hug, one that holds you close and asks your name, not your Instagram handle.
Yes, perhaps the toilets only smell of Glade and not hung with ‘here for a good time’ neon signs. Perhaps the tiramisu is only the depth of your little finger, and the bar only holds some stray bottles of Moretti and terrifyingly yellow Strega, but the barman holds stories of birthdays, marriages, breakups and scandals that no venture capitalist could ever dream of.
Calamari on a Friday night in your local Italian trattoria will not end up on your grid because these places are not supposed to be remembered through a square frame, but in hearts, minds, and bellies. Go and show them some love.
List of places to love:
1) Pizza Pappagone, 131 Stroud Green Road, N4 3PX
This institution boasts both a large plasma TV showing Serie A football and a massive wood-fired oven pumping out excellent pizzas.
2) Le Querce, 66-68 Brockley Rise, SE23 1LN
Family-run Sardinian gem.
3) Anima E Cuore, 127 Kentish Town Road, NW1 8PB
A special spot cooking up inventive takes on Italian classics in a tiny unassuming space. It’s also BYOB.
4) Apulia, 50 Long Lane, EC1A 9EJ
Friendly, authentic Southern Italian with a great wine list.
5) 500, 782 Holloway Road, N19 3JH
Loved by locals, 500 serves up fresh, delicious food in incredibly relaxed surroundings.
6) Nuovi Sapori, 295 New Kings Road, SW6 4RE
A perfect neighbourhood trattoria with a vibrant menu.
7) Un Momento, Lytham St Anne’s, FY8 1NL
Surprising, inventive cooking from Sardinia and Sicily served up in a small, intimate space.
8) Salvi’s Northern Quarter, Manchester, M4 1FS
Much-loved family-run restaurant with a focus on the food of Naples.
9) La Lanterna, Glasgow, G2 6AE
Glasgow’s oldest family-run Italian restaurant, this is a real classic of the genre, serving gutsy classics in a traditional setting.
10) Amici, Bedford, MK40 2PN
Bedford is awash with brilliant Italians thanks to its strong Italian community.
11) The Proud Sicilian, Birmingham, B17 9NS
Taking over from Valentino’s which was established in 1984, this is a little slice of Sicily that aims to continue in serving authentic food in a family-friendly environment.