In the late 1880s, a man called Giacomo Bracchi arrived in London, where he made money by playing a mechanical organ on wheels. After a while, maybe with the pennies he’d saved, Bracchi made the 150-mile journey to Newport in Wales, where he started a new life once more. It was there he had an enterprising idea: to open the country’s first Italian cafe, inspiring generations of his countryfolk do the same – or so the story goes.
From Glasgow to Broadstairs, Italian-run eating places soon popped up everywhere. These restaurants were where many Victorians and Edwardians first enjoyed comfort foods like chips, ice cream and deep-fried battered fish. But it wasn’t until the aftermath of World War II that these places reached their high point, when Britain was reinventing itself and a new wave of Italian migrants, with the skills to run restaurants, came here looking for work.
Italians brought dreary post-war London back to life, with the help of Formica and Vitrolite, the mass-market materials which made these thoroughly modern cafes a reality. Suddenly the capital was bursting with exciting, ornately decorated places to eat, with Italian names glittering above their doors. Some people called these places “greasy spoons,” or better yet, “caffs”.
Caffs are about shelter as much as they are about food. They’re places to eat something simple, without spending much or being moved along. But after decades of fuelling the city, the developer’s wrecking ball razed and gutted dozens of these vital spaces, maybe because offices and coffee chains could pay more rent, or because people thought these old restaurants didn’t look beautiful anymore.
But lamenting their loss won’t bring them back. And fortunately, a small handful of these extraordinary Italian caffs have survived in London against all the odds. Keeping these miraculous eating places alive is simple: just visit them and spend money on something inside. This is a list of the finest, most historic Italian caffs, where everyone should do just that.Read More