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An Evening of Film & Pasta at Pallotti’s Italian Social Club

April 18, 2015

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‘I’m out with the Italians tonight,’ I told my son and daughter. They knew what I meant. It was a night out with the brilliant London Italian Language Meetup Group. Lucia had arranged an evening of film and a simple pasta meal at Pallotti’s Italian Social Club in Clerkenwell.

I walked from Waterloo station to the venue – about 40 minutes. I had plenty of time and wanted to explore a little. The area is in many ways very familiar to me: I worked in nearby New Fetter Lane, just off Fleet Street, in the late 1970s/early 80s and lived in Islington, so passing through Clerkenwell was on my route home; shopping in Leather Lane market something I did at lunchtime. I pass by that way still on my way to meet friends in Islington, or maybe to eat at Exmouth Market where there are wonderful restaurants like Moro. I was in Clerkenwell for another Meetup Lucia arranged at .IT Wine Bar & Cafe last year. Yet somehow I had failed to make the connection that the area was known as Little Italy.

It was early in the 19th century that a community of Italians settled in the Clerkenwell area of London. These were largely skilled craftsmen. Later in the century many more Italians arrived, fleeing the terrible conditions back home following the Napoleonic Wars. These were largely unskilled workers and one of the ways of earning a living was to turn to something Italians know best – food. They opened cafés and restaurants and introduced great coffee, pasta and ice cream to London. By 1850 there were 1,000 Italians in the area; by 1895 there were more than 12,000 – and 900 ice-cream sellers! The migration continued into the 20th century and as the Italian population swelled, some moved further west into Soho where, amongst other Italian places, Bar Italia opened in 1949 – a café that has become a kind of mecca for anyone who loves coffee and is interested in its history.

Pallotti’s Italian Social Club is situated between Terroni – said to be the oldest Italian delicatessen in London, which opened in 1878 – and the Italian church – Chiesa Italiana di San Pietro. The church was established in 1863 and became a focus for the Italian community, including being a labour exchange after Mass on Sunday. The Pallotti club opened in 1960 to provide a meeting place for Italians in London, a centre for Italian culture and sports events. Last night’s film event was arranged by Arrivederci Films. We were to have a simple Italian meal of pasta first with a glass of wine and then watch the film Queen of Hearts (1989). All for an amazing £10.

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I arrived early and spoke to Nicola Gallani from Arrivederci Films. A Meetup table of 12 was allocated but there would be plenty more people. Also there, setting up a table of antipasti, was Lydia from Dialogue Agency representing Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, who had offered to supply us some cheese and Parma Ham to begin our meal. Parma Ham is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product and can only be produced in the traditional way near Parma in Emilia Romagna.

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Its unique flavour is the result of processes that have passed down from Roman times. I talked to Lydia as she lay slices of Parma Ham for us to eat on a plate. It was wonderful ham. There was also a huge chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano. Lydia used a special cheese knife to cut small, bite-sized chunks for people to eat. It was very delicious and quite a young Parmigiano so still creamy and moist so good to eat on its own.

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Although we tend to use the generic term Parmesan so often, any Italian will tell you that the true and best kind is called Parmigiano Reggiano. It is also a PDO which ensures that the name can only be used for cheese produced in designated areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua. The history of this king of cheeses goes back to at least 1200 and Parmigiano Reggiano is still handmade in small artisan dairies with the same care as 800 years ago. Remember when buying the cheese that if the packet says ‘Parmesan’ then it mostly likely isn’t Parmigiano Reggiano but made in a different region. Of course it might still be nice, but it won’t be the real thing!

Once more people started arriving we were invited to take a small plate each of the cheese and ham to our tables. Soon the room was packed with a lively crowd of mainly Italians. Our main course was a simple affair of penne with a tomato sauce, but of course the penne was cooked to al dente perfection, the sauce delicious, and it came with a glass of either white or red wine.

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Then it was time for the film. First we were introduced to Tony Grisoni the screenwriter of the film who said a few words.

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Queen of Hearts was made in 1989 and directed by Jon Amiel who made the famous The Singing Detective for BBC TV. I’d spent the day imagining that I was going to watch a film in Italian – with no subtitles since I was with Italians. As it turned out, it was in English with the occasional bit of Italian. The film was critically acclaimed when it was released and became something of a cult. It tells the story of an Italian couple who elope and flee to London where they open a café and have four children. This is the story of Little Italy and life in Clerkenwell from the 1920s through to the 1960s. It has all the dramatic elements of romance, revenge, humour and fantasy. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film but I enjoyed it and thought it charming and a good way of understanding the history of the Italians in London better.

As I left the club, someone was coming in at the entrance with an armful of takeaway pizzas – obviously for another group of people in one of the many rooms. it was a fun evening and I know I’d like to go back to the area again soon and find out a little more about the history of the Italians in London.

9 Comments
  1. Terrific review, Kay, and I love the blog!

  2. The food looks divine, especially the Prosciutto di Parma and the Parmigiano Reggiano. I had some great Parma Ham in Rom a couple of years ago. I’ll see if I can find the movie on Netflix.

  3. We saw this restaurant and wondered about it when we did a walk round there in November with @oldmapman and we were shown the development of the Italian community in the area. Did you know that the City Lit is doing a 3 hour course taught in Italian on Little Italy in August ? http://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/italian-london

  4. I enjoyed reading this, I wish I could have come along !!!
    I’ve recently created a new website about “Little Italy” in Clerkenwell. Do take a look: http://shapcott-family.com/clerkenwellwel/index.html

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