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Birthday bash for legendary Bar Italia

23 August, 2019

Regular customer ‘Soho George’ Skeggs with owner Anthony Polledri. Photo: Darren Russell

TIMES were tough for anglo-Italians in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

While many families had long considered London to be home – there were large communities in places such as Soho and Clerkenwell – Mussolini’s regime had made for an uncomfortable time for many.

It was in this atmosphere that Lou and Caterina Polledri, originally from Piacenza, borrowed £50 from an ice delivery man they knew and spent the cash on securing the lease for a little coffee shop in Frith Street.

The year was 1949 and what the couple established was to become one of London’s best known cafés, the legendary Bar Italia.

The coffee bar celebrates its 70th birthday this month and what a seven-decade ride it has been. By 1949, Italians in London were returning to the food trade and Lou and Caterina knew Soho had a busy Italian community.

They wanted to serve proper coffee and they were one of the first places to have an original Italian Gaggia machine on the counter. But what made Bar Italia such a hang out was its role within the community.

It was used as a place messages from Italian families could be left. Often the first a person would hear of a birth, marriage, or death back home was when they had popped in. And jobs in the catering industry would be shared at the counters.

And while it was a second home to hundreds of anglo-Italians and other Soho workers and regulars, the place has, of course, had a huge number of well-known regulars.

Behind its bar is a poster of Italian American world heavyweight champion, the legendary Rocky Marciano.

Rocky had become friends with Lou and Caterina’s son Nino and once, during a trip to London, he complained about how bored he was with the food in his hotel.

Nino took him to Caterina’s house for a good old-fashioned Italian risotto and polenta, washed down with home-made wine.

The story has it the champ was so satisfied he kicked off his shoes and slept soundly in their living room for the rest of the afternoon.

Bar Italia is still owned by the Polledri family – a beacon in the ever encroaching chains that have swallowed up Soho.


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