Ciao Bella feels out of place in central London. The restaurant’s nightly in-house pianist, the relaxed lunches washed down with house wine on its busy pavement terrace, and even the old-school spherical vending machine outside, selling miscellaneous plastic toys, might all be more at home on the Amalfi Coast than in a low-rise brick building on Bloomsbury’s Lamb’s Conduit Street, next door to a Victorian pub.
Then again, the long menu of Anglicised Italian classics; the comically large pepper mills; and the fact that everything can (and should) be ordered with chips, all belong entirely to the canon of the British Italian restaurant. Small plates are an unknown concept here. Ciao Bella is the antithesis of the new restaurants that have dominated the Italian dining scene in London over the last half-decade, in which fresh, hand-rolled pasta and an appreciation of regional diversity declared victory over garlic bread and chequered tablecloths.
The classic Anglo-Italian restaurant feels like a dying breed. “There are very few restaurants like this still in London,” says Ciao Bella’s owner, Felice Pollano. At one end of the market, they have given way to restaurants with impeccably curated Instagram feeds and short, ever-changing menus, combining reportedly “authentic” and innovative dishes. At the other, they have been squeezed by Italian-inspired chains: “A lot of people just want something quick and cheap,” Pollano tells Eater. In spite of all this, in the weeks following the second phase of England’s reopening “roadmap,” Ciao Bella is preparing for as busy a summer as ever.
Ciao Bella’s very name is inseparable from images of Italy inspired by the tourist industry. In her book The Beautiful Country, Stephanie Malia Hom observes that items bearing the pickup line “ciao bella,” meaning “hey, beautiful,” are among the most popular souvenirs for sale in the country. When the restaurant first opened in 1983, some of London’s better-travelled residents would already have visited Italy, and might have walked past the restaurant with a knowing look.
Many Londoners, however, would not have had the privilege of experiencing Italy in person back then. Ryanair’s and EasyJet’s cheap fares would later increase short-haul travel to Europe, but they did not even exist when the restaurant first opened. Nonetheless, secondhand knowledge of Italy came from films like Roman Holiday; from cookbooks by the likes of Elizabeth David; and increasingly, from restaurants offering a taste of a place that no longer felt entirely unfamiliar.
In the 1980s, travel to Italy was more of a niche pursuit, even for those Britons who could afford it. The country had suffered decades of political violence, as well as a perception that its tourist infrastructure was not up to the standards of Mediterranean competitors such as Spain and the south of France. From the 1990s, however, the idea that Italy was different from cheaper, mass-market “package holiday” destinations became its hospitality industry’s asset.
Many visitors to Italy came to insist they were travellers, not tourists. They stayed in villas, not high-rise hotels; they ate “like locals”; and they visited churches and art galleries. Accelerated by books like Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) and Eat, Pray, Love (2006), which painted the country as timeless, charming, and picturesque, Italy and its cultural products became an aspirational lifestyle brand.
From the mid-1990s, rising wages and an increase in the availability of affordable European flights made summer holidays in Italy more accessible for many in Britain’s growing middle class. For the rest of the year, and for Italophiles who could not make the journey, the Riviera experience could be approximated, using a little bit of imagination, on Lamb’s Conduit Street, complete with black-and-white movie stills on the restaurant walls, and Chianti from a straw-covered fiasco. The menu might have a few local touches (Guinness, anyone?) but it otherwise bears the hallmarks of countless restaurants in Italian holiday hotspots.
Ciao Bella’s menu is a greatest-hits list of dishes from across Italy that are well-known abroad: scaloppa from Milan, spaghetti alla bolognese from Bologna, sort of, and, of course, pizza from Naples. Hyper-regional cuisine this is not. Nonetheless, Ciao Bella has this in common with many restaurants across Italy, eager to attract visitors by offering dishes that tourists already know and love, regardless of the area’s traditional food culture. It matters little whether Ciao Bella’s customers spent their holidays in Rimini or Rome: A taste of something they enjoyed “over there” can be recreated here, in the familiar surroundings of central London.
If Britons’ holiday habits were changing in the second half of the 20th century, then so were their tastes at home. Italian chefs had been plentiful in the capital since before the First World War, but their biggest influence on the nation’s dining habits began in the mid-20th century. Italian restaurateurs, many trained in London’s trattorie, or “trats,” as they became colloquially known, started exporting their winning formula — Italian food, in an intimate but unpretentious setting, with a few tweaks to appeal to local tastes — across London, as well as to other towns and cities.
The author Alasdair Scott Sutherland argues that the “authentic Italian gastronomic experience” arrived in London decades before the River Café brought seasonal, regional Italian cooking to the bank of the Thames in 1987. His book contains an intricate family tree of Italian restaurants in Britain, many emanating from Soho’s trattoria La Terrazza, which opened in 1959. The restaurant epitomised a “brand of raffish Neapolitan elegance that caught the 1960s zeitgeist perfectly,” and spurred offshoots and competitors across the country. These institutions may not have had the River Café’s later attention to hyper-regional tradition, but they did provide fertile ground for its eventual success.
Ciao Bella is a part of this heritage. When Pollano first came to London 52 years ago at 16, he started washing dishes at the Savoy hotel, and moved on to waiting in Italian restaurants in Kensington. With his wife, Patrizia, he took over Ciao Bella in 1999. Their restaurant retains the influence of an earlier form of British-Italian food culture. It bears many hallmarks of the trattorie that first emerged in the 1960s: a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, regular appearances in celebrity gossip columns, and dishes inspired by the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula.
In Italy, the trattoria is an informal establishment, not to be confused with the higher-end ristorante. This distinction may sound like semantic pedantry, but the atmosphere of the trattoria is crucial to understanding the success of Ciao Bella and places like it. When Eater spoke to Ciao Bella regulars who have dined there since the 1980s and ’90s, two apparently contradictory sentiments kept resurfacing. Ciao Bella is “special”; it “feels like a destination.” At the same time, however, it is “cosy,” and “not in the least pretentious.” This is the magic of the British trattoria: neither the intimidating stuffiness of formal haute cuisine, nor the often impersonal, rapid efficiency of modern casual dining.
Instead, British-Italian trattoria culture fuses what many customers see as the best elements of both casual and formal. Anjolie Singh started eating at Ciao Bella with a group of fellow international students in the 1990s, while living in nearby student halls. She told Eater that “we wouldn’t have wanted to go to formal places: They were too expensive, and we were too foreign.” There is no one “right way” to behave at Ciao Bella. While some come for an intimate, romantic meal, others end up dancing on tables into the night. As Naomi Smart, a Ciao Bella regular for around a decade, puts it: “You can turn up in a sports kit, or about to go to a proper party, and nobody really cares.”
Despite being relaxed and welcoming, however, Ciao Bella still provides a sense of occasion. They will make a fuss on your birthday. Spaghetti al cartoccio, a seafood pasta invented in Pollano’s native Campania, is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Served in a greaseproof paper bag, it is dramatically unwrapped at the table, in Amalfi’s answer to a lid being lifted off a steaming silver platter. It is pure showmanship. In a playful twist, the lemon sorbet is served in the emptied shell of a lemon. The classic Italian practice of long meals over multiple courses, topped off with coffee and a liqueur, feels like the right way to do things there.
Natalia Schiffrin, a regular since the early 1990s, told Eater that “what’s nice about Ciao Bella is that it’s still there. One by one, other restaurants like it have been shut down.” Nostalgia is part of the attraction. Ciao Bella distils what for some Londoners was a brief period of optimism following the emergence of Cool Britannia in the mid-’90s.
Nostalgia only explains part of Ciao Bella’s appeal, however. For as much as one might expect customers to keep returning for old time’s sake, or for a kitsch night out with a side-helping of ironic detachment, regulars expressed very few such sentiments. Singh told Eater that “when the weather is good, there is eating and drinking outside, loud chatter, and strains of the piano. When it’s cold, the windows are steamed up and it is bustling. It always feels bustling.”
London’s artistic and literary communities are particularly drawn to Ciao Bella. Harriet Moore, who works in the publishing industry, tells Eater that she and her colleagues are drawn to the “pleasure of familiar ritual and performance.” She praises the restaurant’s “deliberate resistance to change.” Its classic look, therefore — “a commitment to style,” in Moore’s words — is undeniably important.
Perhaps more important, however, is the perception that Ciao Bella’s aesthetic is honest. “It’s not trying to be anything it isn’t,” says Smart. The restaurant gives the impression that it couldn’t care less whether the gatekeepers of fashion consider Ciao Bella’s style to be the height of naffness, or to be retro and therefore cool. Some of London’s new Italian restaurants go the extra mile to recreate exaggerated versions of old trattoria stereotypes. “A lot of them are designing for Instagram,” Smart says.
Ciao Bella’s sprezzatura, its nonchalance, gives it a certain ambiguity. Is there something cheeky, or knowing, about the restaurant’s theatricality? Or is it just defiantly old-school, carrying on much as it ever has? A definitive answer is impossible to provide; for Ciao Bella, this uncertainty is productive. The restaurant attracts old regulars, daytripping families and avant-garde artists alike, because it can be whatever they want it to be: a veritable London institution, a camp, over-the-top dining experience, or just a generous bowl of pasta before a trip to the nearby cinema.
While many customers Eater spoke to expressed their satisfaction with the food, most agreed with the restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin’s assessment that “food is not ever why [they] come to Ciao Bella.” It is something less tangible — its vibe — that really makes it special. “If you don’t like it, you’re a snob,” says Smart, who like many customers Eater interviewed, feels protective of Ciao Bella. The restaurant serves as a litmus test to detect people who take themselves too seriously. “I can’t imagine anyone saying a bad word about it, and if they did, they’d get shut down.” Any pretentiousness should be left at the door. “It’s IRL enjoyment,” Smart tells Eater. “Put your phone down!”
Singh explained that you do not have to be “in the know” to enjoy Ciao Bella. London is now home to restaurants offering a rich variety of sourdough, Neapolitan, and even charcoal-based pizzas, to name just a few. While this varied landscape might be a connoisseur’s dream, customers could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief to see ham and pineapple pizza still on Ciao Bella’s menu. This is a restaurant that prizes comforting classics, Anglicised or Americanised hybrids as they may be, over innovation or fidelity to an idealised “original.” “Finally,” the menu seems to whisper, “you can relax.” Nobody is going to berate you for not getting it here.
In spite of wind, rain, and below-average temperatures, Ciao Bella’s pavement seating was full in late May 2021, during the restaurant’s first week of post-lockdown trading this year. Pollano notes that Ciao Bella pioneered this style of dining at this end of Lamb’s Conduit Street, under a heated, covered outdoor area. There were once very few restaurants nearby except the pub next door, but the street now has a variety of dining options, from “modern European” cuisine at Noble Rot or La Fromagerie to artisanal coffee and pastries in a minimalist setting at Redemption Roasters. Almost all now have outdoor tables.
Public health guidance favours socialising in fresh air, which reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Many feel more comfortable outdoors, even now that indoor dining is no longer prohibited. Encouraging Londoners to try a relaxed, continental style of al fresco dining, therefore, was more forward-thinking than Ciao Bella could have predicted. Londoners familiar with the area have no need to consult outdoor dining guides to know that the restaurant is a safe bet, so closely is the dark blue canopy associated with Ciao Bella’s image.
Ciao Bella is near a number of London destination venues, which is crucial while the city’s office workers are still encouraged to work from home. Drinkers of a poetic disposition are drawn to the gorgeous green tiles of the Lamb next door, a pub frequented by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; up the street, Noble Rot, an intimate wine bar and restaurant, attracts some of London’s most discerning diners. Though it could not be more different to either of these spots, it is nonetheless hard to resist dropping in at Ciao Bella when visiting the neighbourhood.
Many of the 21st-century arrivals to London’s Italian restaurant scene, like Polpo and Padella, adopted variations of the no-reservations model, in which long queues of diners served as a marker of popularity. Ciao Bella, in contrast, remains happy to take bookings. This has long been useful for busy healthcare workers from the nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital, but is now even more of an asset during the pandemic. In uncertain times, the comfort offered by prior planning often trumps spontaneity.
That said, diners are still welcome to try their luck at the door. “We used to turn away one hundred or two hundred people a day,” says Pollano. “Nowadays we don’t turn away so many, but we’re still always full.” Pollano is confident in the face of competition from the latest wave of Italian restaurants: “People always come back to the classics.” Regular customers echo this. Many, like Smart, go to — and enjoy — “the whole spectrum” of London restaurants, including “trending, hot, of-the-moment places.” Yet despite this, she says, “you always return to Ciao Bella.”
Pollano misses the old-style Italian restaurants that used to dominate the London scene. He also observes that the neighbourhood has changed. In particular, the capital’s out-of-control real estate market has led to a rise in buy-to-leave-empty investments, in properties which once housed full-time residents, a trend he doesn’t see as benefitting restaurateurs.
Nonetheless, Pollano is not in the least bit worried about Ciao Bella’s future. His restaurant was busy in late summer 2020, after the initial easing of lockdown, when only a fraction of the usual number of Britons managed a holiday abroad. After living with travel restrictions for over a year, many Londoners are desperate for some Mediterranean air, but it is far from certain that overseas tourism will be back to “normal” in time. The craving may have to be satisfied in other ways.
The author Ella Risbridger writes movingly about Ciao Bella, a place she loves dearly. Her book Midnight Chicken contains a recipe for the restaurant’s tomato sauce, which “tastes like holidays, like weekends, like sitting people-watching under an orange heat-lamp on a Holborn pavement and holding hands under the table.” Perhaps the real secret of Ciao Bella’s success, even as so many other restaurants of its generation have fallen, lies precisely here: in its elusive ability to will a holiday atmosphere into existence.