Once upon a time, a trance-party princess skittered gleefully through the just lightening streets of London, tangles of lasciviousness and spilt beer sticky in her wake. Dawn had heralded ejection from the womb-warm pulse of an underground club and goddammit she needed a coffee. Bar Italia was a welcome embrace, breathing the rich scent of peppery coffee, spilt sugar, woodbines and raucous laughter into her life.
Described as a “Soho grotto, which keeps safe the city’s sacred heart… an idyll in a concrete jungle corroded by a vacuous modernity” (Huffington Post), Bar Italia is proudly family owned – since 1949 – and is a mecca for the tired, the wired, the thirsty and the dispossessed, a blazing beacon of London’s nighttime economy.
Perhaps Bar Italia is code for cool, but it turns out that The Cowboy has been taking his dates to Norton Street’s Bar Italia for countless years. And while this dogged diner is no late-night London hero, it is as loved by the masses.
It’s also worth pointing out that I was the final date and will remain so (if he values his mascarpone)…
These days, hot dates include the Tin Lid, who has come prepared with gelato-destroying ninja positions,
A cash-only, chipped-paint, crazy-paving lino’ed institution amidst the chrome and Chinotto of Leichhardt, Bar Italia is set like a derelict molar in a snicker of shiny teeth. But that is what makes it so irresistible – like meat cooked in wine and cream, hot whisky, cold soup and wagon wheels – nostalgia seeping from the cracks in the walls, the past staunchly refusing to pass.
A sign reads No Soy Light or Skim Milk; another spells out the specials, complete with pink sauce:
The queue we join snakes in agitation from the till, the Bar already full of just-courting couples and old flames, Italian mobsters, sequinned queens, families with frills of kids who chirp and bicker, and a bag lady, complete with bags. Long-uncool agitprop, free postcards and Jimmy Cliff posters peer down on heads bent over steaming bowls of pasta, chatter streaming from smiling lips, the air fugged with garlicky steam.
First opened in 1952, when life was simpler, Bar Italia caters to a loyal crowd that demands nothing more than no nonsense trattoria fare.
We ordered the same as always, the spicy salty-sweet tang of puttanesca for her, creamy green al frumuto for him, with a tumble of hot chips for the kiddo. There is much debate about the avocado dish the Cowboy demands, stripped as it has been from the menu. Did it ever exist? Has he lost his mind? The barista calmly writes down what can be remembered and shushes us to our seats.
Utilitarian school dinner-esque meals arrive in minutes, as if by ESP, with seemingly no identification where the diner is seated required by harried damp-haired staff.
Slouched against landscaped stucco, an acre of badly written braille, brandishing all the implements you could need, we are silenced.
A print of The Last Supper looks down benignly from one wall, a flatscreen howls on mute from the other; both are ignored. Diners are turned over like cheap steak, a steady thrum through a squeaking door. Turbulents of air bully for space, the cold front from the street at war with the hot and sultry steam from the kitchen.
A squabble of council workers in high vis head for the garden out the back. In summer it is a foodies romp, lush with plants and lingering smoke, the clatter of catering hushed by soft warm air. Tonight, it is wind riven and bleak, though the crowds are here too, clustered behind the plastic curtains:
A lady glides by in blunnies, thick socks and a gypsy skirt: she knows what she wants, a bowl of melanzane alla parmigiana and to be left alone. A curt ‘grazie’ is all she utters – the rest is already understood.
The Cowboy becomes agitated towards the end of his tagliatelle, a thought clearly forming in his mind. It is the Tiramisu Thought, widely acknowledged as being largely stultifying until dealt with. And it goes like this:
I wonder if there’s enough tiramisu? I mean, the place is packed… what if it’s run out? I ate quickly: I got here early: surely they have to have enough? Right? Anyone? The queue is getting longer…
His attention is drawn to the softly spoken melee at the till: an old fella with a determined gaze is asking for a profiterole:
Hey, mate, you want this one? It’s the best one, it’s got tiramisu all over it! You get two dessert for the price of one eh?!… You don’t want that one? That special one? You no want tiramisu? What you mean?
OK, OK, now just a coffee, no worries mate, I can do.
What, you want me to guess what sorta coffee you want too?
(insert vociferous Italian cursing and the sort of gesticulation that would put a flaming orangutan to shame)
The Cowboy springs into action and trots up to the discarded tiramisu, retrieving it and cradling it lovingly in his arms until it is polite to devour it. The Tin Lid insists on gelato. Tiramisu gelato…
And I am content to wander through the guts of the place, and breathe in the last sixty-three years. Garlic, Vittoria, Napoli, biscotti, and burnt sugar, it is the scent of a loud, passionate and provincial dedication to rustic Italian cooking, and it is smeared generously through the air.
And having waged war with the gelato and won, the Tin Lid executes a series of winning ninja moves before we head home in the cold, bellies brimming.