Look at the photo above and you might think this was taken back in the 1950s, certainly much longer ago than last night, on my iPhone6. I was meeting my friend Elsa to see a film early evening in Soho so I decided the most fun place to stop for a sandwich and coffee on the way was Bar Italia in Frith Street.
Bar Italia is an iconic, historic café that was opened in the 1940s by Lou and Caterina Polledri. They arrived in London from northern Italy in the 1920s, first opened a café in Long Acre Covent Garden in the 30s and moved to Soho – the site of the current bar – in 1949. Three generations on, it is still run by the same family. Inside, it seems that little has changed since those early days. There are many of the original fixtures and the Gaggia coffee machine looks as if it might date from the 1950s too.
There is even – Italian style – a large TV at the back. It’s common to find TVs permanently on in bars and even restaurants in Italy. I wasn’t very sure about having the awful Kardashians on and perhaps an Italian TV channel might have been more fitting and would added to the atmosphere!
Looking out on to Frith Street, there are tables outside where many were enjoying an early evening glass of wine. Inside there are a few tables at the back and a bar running all down the left side where you can sit on a stool – as I did yesterday evening.
It really is like stepping back in time. I used to come to this area a lot as a kid with my parents, having coffee on Saturday mornings in the original Patisserie Valerie (before it became a chain) in Old Compton Street or glorious pastries at Maison Berthaux in Greek Street. My dad and I would go off to Italian delis and buy gorgeous gooey Gorgonzola cheese and Italian bread at a time when it was almost impossible to buy such things elsewhere. I remember family and friends used to tease him about his love of ‘smelly’ cheeses, but really my lovely dad was just light years ahead where food was concerned. No wonder I developed such a love of, and interest in, food so early on.
Although Bar Italia is famous now, it is modest about its heritage. You don’t go in and get hit by souvenirs to buy or loud notices announcing their fame. In many ways it’s just an ordinary bar that seems a little rundown if you aren’t aware of its history. It is of course not an ‘ordinary’ bar at all. It’s a favourite haunt of musicians and film stars and anyone who can claim some kind of arty fame. Further down the road is Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and no doubt the late Ronnie popped into Bar Italia a lot as well as his musicians.
What is so special about Bar Italia is the coffee. Before the arrival of artisan coffee houses (they rarely call themselves cafés!) in London over the last decade, this was the place to go for an authentic cappuccino and espresso. And it was certainly selling great coffee before the arrival of the flat white! The first time I remember going there was about ten years ago with my son. We were bowled over by the coffee. It was quite outside our ‘normal’ experience and fabulous. Perhaps now it’s not quite so extraordinary but, as I sampled last night, it is still excellent and one of the best you’ll find in London.
My Italian friends will have to forgive me for ordering a cappuccino at 5.30pm (Italians don’t like you drinking it after 11.00am!) but it was because I wanted to reacquaint myself with Bar Italia’s. I just asked for a cappuccino. No question of size. In this little corner of Italy they wouldn’t dream of offering you a large one. Neither did they ask if I wanted chocolate on top. It’s not common in Italy.
I wanted something to eat too so I chose a panini with Parma Ham, Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil.
It had a good, generous filling and was just what I wanted as an early evening snack.
Bar Italia is open nearly all day – from 7.00am until 5.00am, closing for just a couple of hours and reopening to serve breakfast for anyone up early or still celebrating from the night before in Soho.