Bar Italia, Britain’s most famous coffee bar, has celebrated its 60th birthday. The venue in London’s Soho has entered the new year as the longest-surviving example of the real Italian café which so many modern operators would dearly like to emulate.
History tells that Britain’s first espresso coffee bar was the Moka, in Frith Street, which opened in 1953. However, Bar Italia, a few doors down in the same street, had by that time already been operating for four years, and has survived as a landmark venue, in at the very beginning of espresso in Britain, and steeped in the history and character of Soho’s Italian community.
Its very culture has seen it become a bit of a tourist trap, and the pavement tables can be crammed with celebrities and fashion-followers… even Adrian Maddox in his great book Classic Cafes observed that Bar Italia has been in danger of being spoiled by ‘droves of Soho media flunkeys’.
However, it does have a genuine ‘cool’ star clientele, ranging from Rocky Marciano in the 1960s (who wanted somewhere he could ‘eat proper Italian food’) to David Bowie and Kylie Minogue. Even before the Polledri family opened the business, the building had a place in history – it is where John Logie Baird first demonstrated television.
The current boss, Tony Polledri, is the son of the founder, and has watched the development of the British coffee-bar trade at every stage.
“The opening of Bar Italia was a really big event – Abbot and Costello came over, and we had a competition to win a baby Gaggia. They had to drink the most coffee – the winner was an old lady who walked off with it under her arm! As children, we started at the bottom, and I began work counting change on a Saturday night, and went on to work under a man who serviced the espresso machine with a long knife.
“The bar was very different then – it was predominantly men, and only Italian men. The door was always closed, and the place was full of smoke, because the smokers wanted the door closed, for some peculiar reason. In the morning, the place would be like a sauna, with the steam making patterns as it rolled through the nicotine and down the sides of the espresso machine.
“When my father relinquished the reins to my brother and I, the first thing I did was throw the doors open, and they’ve been open ever since!
“Even into the 70s, Soho was very different to anywhere else. All the Italians and Maltese would be standing around, men in string vests, everybody hustling to make a buck. Money was easy to make, and the bookies took it just as easily. But it was safe.
“Then, in the 80s, Soho turned from a black-and-white movie into a colour one. We made the transition into café-culture mode, and the musicians came in – Adam Ant did an album cover here.
“But fundamental to it all is that Bar Italia has always been an Italian social centre – one habit that hasn’t changed in years is that Italians come in here to watch the news on television. I do believe that being in here at some times is just like being in Italy.”
Bar Italia uses a unique espresso coffee blend. Nobody knows what it is except Mr Angelucci, the great coffee roaster whose business opened eighty years ago, a couple of doors away. He created the blend for the Polledri family in the 1960s, and still refuses to reveal the recipe, even to the current management.
(Angelucci moved his roastery to Finchley a couple of years ago, and Bar Italia bought his old shop but refuses to take his nameplate down on the basis that it is an historic relic of Italian Soho).
It is on nights when the Italian football team is playing that Bar Italia is busiest and at its most characteristic. During Italy’s recent successful World Cup campaign, the crush inside Bar Italia was so extreme that someone actually managed to remove the logo badge from the 40-year-old Gaggia espresso machine as a souvenir.
More conventional souvenir-hunting is a common problem – in the most recent case, Bar Italia staff recently stopped a customer walking out with an entire rucksack full of its cups!
By Ian Boughton