I’ve followed the career of Rotherhithe artist Ed Gray for many years and could always see how his paintings fit into the historical landscape of London at large. He has covered most of our capital, and its people in all their various realities, in expansive cityscapes that are snapshots of every little intricacy of those places and people, so I was always intrigued to know why he focussed on one place when he painted Bar Italia, a coffee bar in Soho; a coffee bar, I thought, amongst many, writes Michael Holland.
But when I asked him what was special about it he told me this: ‘From the moment you cross the threshold you are transported back into your past. Nothing has changed in there in the 30 years that I’ve been visiting – the smiles are as warm, the staff are as professional and the coffee is the best in London. But what you are really paying for is a ringside seat into the soap opera of Soho… Nino and the Polledri family and staff have brought a little slice of Italian style to the streets of London for over 70 years, and with my painting I was able to give something back to them.’
I was intrigued, so I arranged a meeting with Nino Polledri, the patriarch who has been at Bar Italia and Little Italy – their restaurant next door – from the beginning; or pretty much since he was born in City Road in 1936.
Nino is a gourmand, an epicurean, the epitome of bonhomie when entertaining around a table. ‘Can you bring a red and a white, please,’ was how our coming together began. He spoke of how his family came here for a better life and how they began with a Covent Garden café, which was great until Italian men were interned during the war, along with everyone else that weren’t British. But the womenfolk soldiered on to keep the business going until Mr Polledri was released.
After the chef and Nino had a discussion in Italian our orders were in. The Boss had a simple Parma ham and Melon starter, while I had the calamari. Squid is a versatile creature that can be cooked in many ways, but so many restaurants get it wrong. Here it was perfect. It looked good, tasted good, and by golly it done me good.
Nino continued the tale of the Polledris and how they opened several businesses in Soho over the years, though just Bar Italia and Little Italy remain from over 80 years of serving London and its visitors. We discussed the menu that has Ed Gray’s painting on its cover, and I heard stories about the people portrayed in it that I can’t repeat. The wine was kicking in.
The main courses arrived with a flourish. I had a side order of chunky chips and they were good. Very good. But the main attraction was the Veal Milanese, and Welsh Lamb Chops (Nino insisted I try a little of two mains), and these great pieces of meat were cooked simply but perfectly. The lamb absolutely melted. There was some broccoli and salad involved as well, and when I said the dressing was remarkable Nino told me the secret family recipe. The wine had kicked in.
It was then explained to me how you should alternate your liqueurs with coffees. At this point I was believing anything, so the next half hour was a blur of espresso, grappa, espresso, prosecco, espresso, grappa (‘Bring the strong one,’ our waiter was told!) And in between all this I ended up with a Chocolate Fondue for a family of four while Mr P sat there enjoying a naughty little Crème Brûlée for one. I need to say I was not aware that this was a sharing dish, but I did only leave one blueberry, one piece of pineapple, and a couple of marshmallows, which I deem heroic!
Nino’s sons and daughter are in charge now, so the sumptuousness of the feast was courtesy of them, but meeting the father figure of it all, and listening to the family’s history over a wonderful three hours, I know why Ed Gray painted this iconic place in London’s history.
There is also an excellent fixed price menu.
Little Italy – Bar Italia, 21 Frith Street, Soho, W1D 4RN.
0207 734 4737 – http://www.littleitalysoho.co.uk
12pm – 3am
Photos: Michael Holland